Reading Images: After Belonging & the Spaces of a Life in Transit

On Tuesday, 29 September 2015, Leah participated in "Reading Images: After Belonging" at the Storefront for Art & Architecture in New York, launching the next year of events, programs, and work leading up to the Oslo Architecture Triennale 2016.

From the program:

“Reading Images: After Belonging” reflects on a group of images that frame new objects, spaces, and territories which define our transformed condition of belonging under global regimes of circulation.

We invite the participants to critically consider the different scales involved in these transformations (from the drawers in which we keep our belongings to the territories in which we exchange them) and their different media (from the materiality of legal borders to the media spaces constructed by new home-sharing platforms and applications).

The event is presented in conjunction with the launch of the competition “After Belonging: Intervention Strategies,” a part of the program of the 2016 Oslo Architecture Triennial.

Participants Include: 
Gro Bonesmo, Eva Franch i Gilabert, Leah Meisterlin, María Nicanor, Julian Rose, and Mark Wigley

Along with the curators of the Oslo Architecture Triennale 2016: Lluís Alexandre Casanovas Blanco, Ignacio G. Galán, Carlos Mínguez Carrasco, Alejandra Navarrete Llopis, and Marina Otero Verzier

With Introductions By: 
The Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg; 
Director of the Oslo Architecture Triennale, Hege Maria Eriksson

The Redeemed Christian Church of God annual convention campground near Mowe, on the outskirts of Lagos. Photo: Robin Hammond.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God annual convention campground near Mowe, on the outskirts of Lagos. Photo: Robin Hammond.

Evidence: Experienced, Witnessed, Testified, Shared

[A reading of the image above. The reading's text is below and starts within the video here. (The full video from the event is available here.) There were, of course, a few improvised deviations from the text.]

Here we have two men on the stage at the 61st annual camp and convention of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. The photo was taken by Robin Hammond at the edge of Lagos and was featured in National Geographic as one of many in a series on Africa's most populated urban area. They range in subject matter from growing art and cultural industries to this: the big business of big religion epitomized by this annual coming together of the faithful—held within a tented mega-church spanning about a square mile (give or take), collecting what seems an uncountable number of people: maybe a couple hundred thousand, maybe a couple million. The event is enormous and realizes a more-than-densely packed house of worshipers.

Whatever their number—and, if you can indulge the fact that I'm going to rather grossly gloss right over the long and difficult history that brought Pentecostal Christianity to this tent, acknowledging that history only within this brief aside, then—this collection of pilgrims brings me to where I'd like to start my circuitous reading of circulation and the first in a brief list of those things which circulate via this image or, more appropriately, via its contents.

Distinguished from other Christian churches whose practices focus on the individually contemplative or the liturgical enactment of theological study, Pentecostalism is seemingly paradoxical in that it is a faith-based practice rooted in observable experience down to and including the Doctrine of Initial Evidence: churches built upon a sort of empirical faith or faithful empiricism, a sensorily verified faith. If glossolalia constitutes Pentecostal Initial Evidence, then maybe even an evidence-based faith. Congregants brought together to share in the multi-sensory observation and observance of their faith at work and in action. While not necessarily sharing the scientist's methods, there is an uncanny resemblance to the scientist's premise here. With full faith in your senses, what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel—that to which you bear witness—is testimony to the Truth of your faith and becomes that to which you can now testify.

Behind Hammond's lens and before the stage, sit and stand a congregation of parishioners and pilgrims drawn together by this observance and observation, by the promise of evidence by experience—in other words, by the opportunity to receive (among others) the gift of signs and to witness the synesthetic transcendental so often characteristic of the unknowable. And so, unsurprisingly an aesthetic develops under this tent guided by the scale of the collected believers and the scale of their collective experience; gathered and cultivated here by the promise to Witness and then pushed outward by the Testimony circulating from this place. And this means that, in many ways, I'm talking very literally about the creation and circulation of Signs.

What we're looking at is the photojournalistic documentation of an apparatus (stage, tent, the Man of God, pilgrims and congregants all included); an apparatus designed to collect and create both live, IRL experience and complex synesthetically oriented images of that experience, each meeting and exceeding these sensory, evidentiary expectations. It is an apparatus designed to augment the geographic and demographic reach, impact, and influence of both of these key acts: to Witness and to Testify. Further, this image documents a stage that cannot be decoupled from its online doppelgänger within the larger apparatus of the church's global platform. And, again, the synesthetic experience is important—both within and far beyond the tent and its temporary encampment town—because the products of the apparatus, these signs (witnessed and testified), are locally and globally operative only insofar as they might carry the effects of more-than-visual stimuli toward more-than-first-person signification.

These produced signs bear the aesthetic markers of this apparatus—new icons of their mode of production, new relics for the verification of gifts as evidence. They reach a global congregation—the Internet as conduit, social media as missionary—uniting the congregation through photos, videos, online live-streaming sermons, and occasionally bricks and mortar. (The Brooklyn chapter was established in 1998.) These aesthetic markers, these icons of production, are crucial. After all, empiricism—faith-based or otherwise—requires more than a peak at that apparatus, a good-faith show of the instruments, lest the miraculous be questioned as sham or sorcery.

All this leads me to a few last and lingering questions of production. Specific to circulation, this means the supply chains by which the apparatus is maintained; the movement of signs mediating the relationship between flows of witnesses, flows of testimony, and the flows of tithings; and ultimately to this issue of ‘belonging.’

Truthfully, the financial issues and accusations revolving around this church are less interesting to me than the others. The emphasis on the practice of tithing—with added emphasis on generosity and an apparent quid pro quo approach to blessings—is not particularly new. What might be newer or just new-ish is televangelism beyond the television. We know the power of the Internet in this regard. The retweetable image and the "like-able" video: They transform the sign experienced to testimony given to evidence received and witnessed anew to mimetic rituals that reach pilgrims without pilgrimage.

And therein maybe lies the belonging: in the perpetual circulation of the reconfigured Gift; in the multiple but individual and singular, unidirectional transactions from one congregant to another. It's in the click of Facebook’s “share” button. It's the American football of message syndication: pushing forward one play at a time. In this way, this Pentecostal practice is made for the 21st Century. It is immensely private and mandatorily public, and to exercise one’s faith is to further these patterns of translation and sharing. To belong is not to be on this stage or in this tent or in any one place in particular, within this community. To belong is to participate, alongside everyone else, in the apparatus.

an admittedly animated reading.

an admittedly animated reading.