Re-Musing the Museum: Part II Re-Musing the Museum: Part II

Re-Musing the Museum: Part II

ArTalk: Just Art? Ethics, guidance and art autonomy, Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, 2018

Re-Musing the Museum: Part II was a talk presented in my capacity as Co-Artistic director of Museum of Impossible Forms, discussing the precarity of cultural work in the context of Museum work.

[I]n today’s information society, museums have an important role to play in preserving, producing and transmitting information. However, as cultural funding continues to decline, the responsibility for producing information and culture increasingly shifts to the individual: the museum worker, the artist, the spectator and the experiencer, the museum visitor, the curator. How can museums redefine themselves in a rapidly changing world?

This was the first event in the ArTalk series titled ArTalk: Just Art? Ethics, guidance and art autonomy was organized by TAKU Ry (Culture Worker’s Association) and MAL Ry (Museum worker’s Union), on 27 November 2018 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma.

Below is the text of my prepared lecture performance:

Re-Musing the Museum, Part II

Good evening,

My name is Ali Akbar Mehta. For those of you who do not know me, I am a Transmedia artist, living now in Helsinki since 2015. My practice involves creating immersive archives that orbit the themes of violence, conflict and trauma. I am also one of the founding members of Museum of Impossible Forms, and currently one of the three Artistic Directors that are involved in the core programming of the space.

I am here to briefly talk about ethical and political action within a museum space, and share some of the work we do at Museum of Impossible Forms. I can begin by providing some kind of a contextual framework that seems relevant in why we do… what we do at Museum of Impossible Forms:

We are living in a ‘knowledge based’ society, where intellectual labour has a dominant form; and that the ability to communicate, to act autonomously and to produce knowledge are the requirements for being creative, creating and consuming knowledge. “Knowledge has to be produced somewhere […] once produced, it has to be transmitted […] this transmission will by necessity imply a pedagogical element.” One also assumes that if knowledge is of increasing importance today, institutions of both creating and transmitting knowledge must be important – But reality disproves this assumption as we witness a deterioration due to lack of funding, thereby ruining academies, universities and institutions; and defunding and cuts in culture sector reducing the effectiveness of artistic endeavours.

Sooner or later we will reach a knowledge society without knowledge. Worse, society will transform into a society with very specific kinds of knowledge – those that have immediate relevance in the job markets. The role of education to impart knowledge based on economic gain is a crucial statement of fact indicating the state of government policy, the dominating corporate sectors and diminishing role of universities.

The burden of producing knowledge is therefore increasingly shifted onto the individual ‘User’. The ‘User’ here is simultaneously an archivist/ artist/ curator/ author/ researcher/ participant/ audience. Museum of Impossible Forms recognizes the implied urgency within this crucial fact and its own role as a para-institution focusing on alternate pedagogy.


And so, The question that we at Museum of Impossible Forms are asking is, “How can we propose an alternative?”

Where is our agency?

To speak up

To speak out

To critique

To transform

To impact

To take space

To make space

To give way

To see

To listen

To be heard?

Ethnocentrism is a dominant, normative and often hegemonic thinking that would have all of us, as individuals, believe that ‘My Culture is better than yours’.

Conversely, The act of being a student is a performative act. It is an act that actively disengages with the statement of ethnocentrism, and states instead that ‘your knowledge is better than mine’. As students those who profess to be in a state of learning) we hope and claim to seek that knowledge by a seemingly simple acknowledgement ‘Your Culture is better than mine’. Of course, this statement is at least partially utopian if not terribly presumptuous. But I make it in the face of the current ethnocentricity that has seemingly shaped our understanding of history, a history of struggle, of conflict and violence, and other relations of power structures.

In postcolonial theory, unlearning dominant knowledge has been repeatedly discussed as an important practice for challenging the value-encoding apparatus from inside the structure of knowledge production. Is it even possible to simply leave dominant knowledge behind? For Nora Sternfeld, the answer is clear – there is simply no way back to a time or place before the history of relations of power and violence that are responsible for what we know today. For her, it is an absurd position, one that may even support the hegemonic power relations at play; “unlearning” is not merely interested in finding ways to avoid hegemony, but instead in formulating counter-hegemonic processes. Unlearning therefore neither involves imagining going back to a time before the current power relations were in place, nor a clear-cut correction process. It is about naming and thereby socially transforming histories of violence and spaces of agency created by resistance and struggles for liberation. In this sense, it is a form of learning that actively rejects dominant, privileged, exclusionary and violent forms of knowledge and acting, which we still often understand as education, and knowledge.

For me , Museum of Impossible Forms is a partial response towards the engulfment of a responsibility to facilitate and/or empower the facilitation of a new kind of para-institution. The main aim of all activities, events, and programs, is to continue to investigate the foundation on which M{if} is proposed, which is: To create a space that facilitates the creation of emancipatory knowledge that upholds the principles of decoloniality and equality, within a larger framework of ‘Alternative Pedagogy’ and ‘Para Institutional Spaces’, as a space for learning, unlearning and relearning.

We at Museum of Impossible Forms wish to complicate the words ‘Museum’, and ‘Impossible’. For us, the word museum already contains within it the contemporary notions of the para-museum, the counter museum, the anti-museum. Museum no longer represent the ivory towers and petrification machines, where objects are preserved and inventoried in accordance with their cultural and historical ‘value’. Rather, they must take upon themselves to (re)establish their relationship to society and take on the role of being educational.

Museums today must ask on a regular basis, what must be done? Not just for itself, but for us as members of a socio-political society. It must ask, how do we choose to act? How do we choose to act – In our media saturated, Socially omnipresent, politically fractured, economically segregated, Xenophobic, Disembodied world?

Where ‘post’ in Post Adolescent, Post Modern, Post Human, Post Jargon, Post Truth, Post Fordist, Post History, Post Colonial, Post Humour, Post Meaning, Post Apocalyptic, Post Graduate, means, ‘In crisis of’.

As the poet and philosopher Sun Ra has said,

“The possible has been tried and failed. Now it’s time to try the impossible.”

And so , if you will repeat after me, “Museums:

  1. Museums, are archives of knowledge
  2. Museums, preserve patrimony and cultural heritage against vandalism, oblivion, or decay
  3. Museums, manifest concerns of the epochs
  4. Museums, are sites of exclusion
  5. Museums, mirror dominant ideologies
  6. Museums, are neutral a(n)estheticized frameworks for artists
  7. Museums, are none of the above
  8. Museums, are all of the above
  9. Museums, are more than this list
  10. We, as ‘users’ will seek new meanings for what can it mean for ‘the Museum; to be an ‘Impossible Form’.”

As a ‘User’ working to create immersive archives, working with archives and intimately involved in the manifestation of a space, its core programming and its ‘becoming’ in its physical space, The concepts of ‘Archive’ and ‘Museum’ remain distinct, become blurred, intersect, and often merge. I invite you freely entangle the two in the following:

If we looks at the similarities between archives and museums, we realise that archives have traditionally worked in conjunction with the same principles that govern museums – they have been ‘petrification machines’ – collecting, encoding and storing objects, documents and data, cultural or otherwise; that has been deemed ‘valuable’ by the agency of the archival system. In Archive Fever, Derrida challenges attempts to compound arkhé and archive, exposing the way in which the concept of the archive is inescapably linked to Archontic power. He reminds us that archives are monuments, in the way in which power is reconfigured. It not merely stores and includes, but also testifies to a narrative of exclusion – what is included in the archive is due to its value, that which is excluded loses its value. But the question is, who ascribes this value to objects or documents in archives? And through what criteria? And so it makes sense that according to Archival theorist Achille Mbembe, ‘The Archive is a status’.

For me, The real issue concerns archiving/museum building as a possible form of critical art, the ways in which artistic practices can contribute to questioning the dominant hegemony. Once we accept that identities are never pre-given but that they are always the result of processes of identification, that they are discursively constructed, the question that arises is the type of identity that critical artistic practices should aim at fostering.

Peter Mayo, who writes on both Gramsci and Freire, asks a simple question that all political education must ask itself: “what side are we on when [we] teach, educate and act?” As students (those who profess to be in a state of learning), we may ask – what side are we on when we learn and act? What is it that we learn, how do we learn it, and what do we communicate once it is learnt?

As beginnings – arche, and their types (archetypes) are formulated, naturalised and assimilated into the way we think about culture, they become standards that generate tendencies of further cultural production. If our culture – our knowledge – truly encompasses everything that we know, then this knowledge is not selective. And so neither can the gaze that views this knowledge, our reflective gaze – our archive.

The ‘postmodern condition’ has now cornered us in a seemingly impossible situation. We are compelled to seek alternate histories in order to achieve an impossible balance between knowledge and the power it produces. Globalisation has created a condition where a subsequent ‘clash of civilisations’ has thrown us against each other in ways we are still seeking to explain. We are in the throes of the effects of our condition, where we are yet to understand completely its cause. The post-structural thinking that sought to decentralise the structures, and expose ideological domination, have fallen prey to its own dogmatic tools – a dogma of predestination, as well as the capitalist Superego Paradox.

In a former time, such criticism would not have been valid or even necessary. Marx was writing against a system that laid no specific claims to the apparatus of knowledge production itself – even if it was fuelled by a persistent and pernicious form of ideological misrecognition. Yet, today the situation is entirely reversed. ‘The new spirit of capitalism is found in brainwork, self-measurement and self-fashioning, perpetual critique and innovation, data creation and extraction. In short, doing capitalist work and doing intellectual work – of any variety, bourgeois or progressive – are more aligned today than they have ever been.’

The language of critique is effective – not because it keeps separate the terms of the master and the slave, the mercantilist and the Marxist – to the extent to which it overcomes the given grounds of opposition and opens up a space of translation: a hybrid place where the construction of a political object that is new – neither the one nor the other – properly alienates our political expectations and changes the way we recognise the moment of politics. According to Galloway, “The challenge lies in conceiving of the time of political action and understanding as opening up a space that can accept and regulate, the differential structure of the moment of intervention, without rushing to produce a unity of the social antagonism or contradiction.”

The question is no longer the same that Hannah Arendt asked:

“Can we use the master’s tools to take down the master’s house?”

Today the question is

“Can we still use our own tools now that the master has taken them up?”

It is a critical method applied towards learning, unlearning and relearning its subject of enquiry, through the shedding of the illusion of predestination and the Superego. It is especially useful in ascertaining other methods and fields of making sense of the world. It resonates with the post-structural theories of first invalidating all truths, and subsequently, through a process of theoretical reasoning and a praxis of ‘doing the everyday’ formulating newer – updated socio-political values. The act of tenderness in essential in the way toward “learning to learn from below” as in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s formulation, or, as Souleymane Bachir Diagne puts it, learning from others in order to live together. Such learning, for Adam Szymczyk, allows us, as artists to imagine a symmetrical situation of the encounter of equals, and not not an asmmetrical power relationship between the soveriegn and the subaltern.

Whatever the archive may not do, it must do this. It must be unflinchingly non-selective, and be cognizant of our differences, our diversity, our plurality; but it must also highlight our affinities, our intersections, our togetherness – in order to counter alienation by providing spaces for familiarisation. Familiarisation is the key function for the archive of today, the act of familiarising ourselves to each other is the crucial task we face. Through it we present ourselves ‘[…] only as members of a biological species which has a remarkable history, and whose disappearance none of us can desire’, rather than as beings who present themselves to each other as unrecognisable aliens, self censored and segregated into claims of uniqueness and markers of identity that can have no ultimate meaning.

Museum of Impossible Forms:

Museum of Impossible Forms (M{if}) is a ‘culture centre’ that started operating in Kontula in the spring of 2017, seeking to become an integral part of the evolving sociopolitical and cultural lives of Kontula.

M{if} is also the coming together of a collective of people – artists, curators, pedagogists, philosophers and facilitators – art and cultural workers who believe in the need for this space. M{if } consists of

  1. Ahmed Al-Nawas
  2. Ali Akbar Mehta
  3. Christopher Wessels
  4. Marianne Niemela
  5. Raine Vasquez
  6. Selina Väliheikki
  7. Vidha Saumya
  8. Caroline Suinner
  9. Koko Hubara
  10. Hassan Blasim
  11. Mona Eid
  12. Christopher Thomas
  13. Sergio Castrillon
  14. Vishnu Vardhani
  15. Heidi Hänninen

Beyond these individuals, Museum of Impossible Forms works with a number of collectives, organisations and institutions to create a transnational lattice of shared concerns and practices. Some of these are:

  • Ruskeat Tytot, Helsinki
  • Dear You, Helsinki
  • FAR Night School, Helsinki
  • Para Nordic Conference, Stockholm
  • Kontula Art School project, Helsinki
  • SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin
  • Chimurenga Collective, SA
  • Clark House Initiative, Mumbai

As artists, curators, researchers, art workers and ‘Others’, a significant part of MIF’s practice is of enquiry, research and representations of experiences as well as parallel personal and public histories. We are striving towards legibility – a vocabulary.

At its core, M{if} houses a multilingual library and multimedia archive; as well a workshop and exhibition space. It facilitates curated discursive art programs, with an opportunity for norm-critical dialogue framed within the discourse of decoloniality, postcolonial feminism, and queer theory.

M{if} entangles different realities and experiences – with collaboration, participation and a space for audience that is prompted by ideas of utopia and oppression, history and the future, borders, time, art and technology, and, more importantly, community. Live conversations, travelogues, discussion sessions and performances, and exhibitions of new and archival material interrogate our shared histories and forge new collaborations across time and space.

For example:

Its library consists of books, zines, pamphlets and music, films and other material that is not usually available in public libraries, with specific leaning towards works on decoloniality, anti-racism. intersectionality, feminism and queer theory. Within the operations of the library is our creative writing programmes, which contribute to the library through self-published texts, published under the Publishing Table project.

The Publishing Table hosts regular book and zine-making workshops, similarly contributing to the library and archive. The Publishing table is also central in producing an annual edition of The Impossible Reader, a critical publication to consolidate practices, events and programs at M{if}, the first edition of which will be available by summer of 2019.

The centre/margin binary:

M{if} began two years ago, with funding from Kone Foundation that allows M{if} to be a free space. The Museum of Impossible Forms is a free space, which means that it does not charge artists a monetary fee to use the space. It is a free space with the mandate to avail our resources (archive, library, workshop) and expertise to the surrounding community. All the events organised in the space have so far been free also for the audience to attend, and our principle is, with the help of funding, to keep the events free. Furthermore, we intend to compensate invited guests, artists, curators and speakers to support the integrity and ethics of cultural labor which is all too often underpaid, and underappreciated.

Although several artist-run spaces exist in Helsinki, and are ‘free’, ie. They do not charge artists and collaborators a fee for the use of its premises; they often operate out of the centre.

M{if} is interested in ‘working in the margin’. Margin here is used in a socio-political sense: as opposed to the commercial center, the historic center, & the political center. M{if} shifts the site of culture away from a centralised & elitist position. Our aim is not to import culture into “cultural deserts,” but to co-generate it with the community, as its own creative common. Freed from its economic shackles, for us the domain of ‘the museum’ not only provides knowledge to be free as an option, but as ‘inevitable destination’. We need to look around us for examples of this in action. Beyond social media platforms such as facebook and Instagram, where we can see an increasing rise of artists-led archiving of their own selves and their work, where sharing is prioritised over the market, and freely shared knowledge defines its own currency

M{if} members are primarily ‘border thinkers’, and are of native, foreign and/or immigrant descent. The concept of ‘border thinkers’ was first used in the context of Decolonial Theory by Gloria Anzaldúa in her book ‘Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza’ and has subsequently been developed by Decolonial thinkers, most prominently Walter Mignolo. Border thinking is thinking from the outside, using alternative knowledge traditions and alternative languages of expression.

As such, the Uniqueness of M{if} also lies in the composition of its members and collaborations, which allow for distinct perspectives both as ‘Insider’ and ‘Outsider’ – to Kontula, to the art community, to the circle of institutions, to the city, and the nation state.


The programming at M{if} is roughly divided into two kinds of programming: one, that belongs to and is rooted within the art world and its activities; The other is located within the physicality of being in Kontula.

Kontula was conceived of as a Utopian project marking 50 years of Finnish Independence, largely constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. With the end of the cold war in the 1990’s, Kontula witnessed the devastating effect of economic crisis as well as an influx of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia. Today, the business ventures of Kontula Mall that also houses MIF, serve the needs of a growing demographic change (Iraqi and Syrian eating houses, immigrant run barbershops, hairdressers and bakeries) have created hybrid sites practicing the politics of togetherness, by reviving dying shopping malls to serve its own needs, engages the performativity of its own culture and as a contemporary institution remaking its own center.

Today, we are witnessing a shift in the business ventures of Kontula that serve the needs of a growing demographic change – Iraqi and Syrian eating houses, immigrant runned barbershops, hairdressers and bakeries, that clearly do not seek to assimilate, replace or unify – but rather to create hybrid sites practicing the politics of togetherness. It is a different kind of gentrification, wherein dying shopping malls are revived by the area communities to serve its needs. THESE are the contexts of counter-hegemonic intervention that we want to nestle our artistic and curatorial praxis within.

Establishing Museum of Impossible Forms specifically in Kontula, has both conceptual and personal significance for its members. For us, it is in part an attempt to Put down roots, to find comfort in a space that allows us the space to loiter, hang out and to just be.

I can explain – Museum of Impossible Forms is in one of the buildings of the Old Arcade style malls of Kontula. As you exit the metro, you enter a space of multiple entry and exits, an open-access space, a loosely crafted network of shops, cafes, bars and squares, a garden/park and a children’s playing area. The mall forms an ecosystem of various co-inhabitants. For example, one of the neighbouring spaces of M{if} is a prayer room. Often when the prayer room is closed, people who intend to go to it, end up waiting in M{if}, often hanging out and often end up participating in an ongoing discussion, seminar, screening etc.

M{if} not only sits on the margins of multiple worlds in Kontula and Helsinki, but bridges them within the folds of its space and its transdisciplinarity.

This production of emancipatory knowledge becomes possible only in a space where art, research and activism can freely merge and enable us to ‘imagine the new’. Our ‘NEW NARRATIVES’ summer school is an exciting manifestation of this vision, where we use (alternative) storytelling as a way for community building, developing an archive of stories that are representative of the community.

This ability to transcend, transgress, and translocate, from one cultural normativity to another – often combining, hybridising need – allows us to easily explore perspectives on:

  • Migration
  • Citizenship
  • Statelessness
  • Arrival
  • Memory
  • Belonging

To simply summarise, Museum of Impossible Forms currently facilitates :

  1. A multi-lingual Library and Publishing Table, facilitating in-house publishing, zine making and creating a toolkit towards self-publishing practices
  2. A multimedia Archive of critical discourse, performance and exhibition, aimed to be a research platform and a living archive formed by its members and audience.
  3. Society of Cinema that uses Cinema as a method for community building
  4. Performance LAB that nurtures the experimental performance scene
  5. Improv Sessions that further the experimental music scene and connects Finnish musicians and sound artists with artists living and working abroad.
  6. The Impossible Reader as a annual publication to consolidate programs and events
  7. Ongoing Discursive program on critical art practice and curation
  8. An Annual Summer school and pedagogical programs

These are not just ongoing events, but represent a slow work of building communities, where often the work is invisible and hidden by necessity. These events are the tip of the iceberg, and often defy easy categoraisation

To conclude, I would like to ask you to participate in the reading of this poem by Saul Williams, by repating each line that begins with the word ‘hack’

"Hack into dietary sustenance

Tradition versus health

Hack into comfort compliance

Hack into the rebellious gene

Hack into doctrine

Capitalism, the relation of free labor and slavery

Hack into the history of the bank

Is beating the odds the mere act of joining the winning team?

Hack into desperation and loneliness

The history of community and the marketplace

Hack into land rights and ownership

Hack into business, law of proprietorship

Hack into ambition and greed

Hack into forms of government

The history of revolutions

The relation of suffering and sufferance

Hack into faith and morality

The treatment of one faith towards another

Hack into masculinity, femininity, sexuality

What is taught, what is felt, what is learned, what is shared

Hack into God

Stories of creation, serpents and eggs

Hack into coincidence

The Summer of '68

The 27th club

The number of people with Facebook profiles

People who choose to share

People who share too much

People who seem lonely

People who want to connect

People who want to uplift

People who need uplifting

Three simple copper wires coiled around an orb

Parked in an orbit

Equatorial landmines, useful and precious metals

Coltan as Cotton

Coltan as Colton as Cotton (x4)

Hack into whores

Industrial, digital

Hack into code

Use your instrument as metaphor

Hallowed to the ground, type into the mainframe

Dismantle definition, dogma and duty

Hack into the database

Hold it in the subconscious

The panel marked “survival”

Hack into celebrity

Hack into the cultural development of taste

Hack into violence, fear, and ignorance."


Thank you.