Delay (2014), video
by Santiago Mostyn
texts by Santiago Mostyn and
Susanne Fessé, curator, art historian
Excerpt from Santiago Mostyn's Delay (2014), video, 4:20
with music by Susanna Jablonski and William Rickman.
Online screening was presented October 31-November 15, 2021 at StreamingMuseum.org.
"Street life in Stockholm is based on the principle of avoidance. First rule: avoid being on the street unless necessary. . . .Second rule: if on the street, avoid contact with other people. . . .The accidental contact of body to body is something embarrassing, mildly unpleasant, and best treated as if it had not happened at all." – Susan Sontag
When Susan Sontag wrote “Letter from Sweden,” her biting 1969 critique of a society that she labeled “pathological,” the country was at the height of its fame as a socially cohesive liberal democracy. These days, in the eyes of the average citizen, the Nordic model of universalist social welfare and strong unions is seen as a nostalgic framework, and free market enterprise is increasingly regarded as the path to a stable future. Despite this shift, the Swedish temperament has remained remarkably consistent through the decades, and Sweden has consequently had a difficult time adjusting its self-image to include the large numbers of nonwhite and non-Christian immigrants who now call the country home. Race scholars Tobias Hübinette and Catrin Lundström, writing after Sweden’s 2010 elections, outlined the situation more succinctly: “The fact of having held the title of the world’s most progressive and left-liberal country, combined with Sweden’s perception of itself as the most racially homogenous and pure of all white nations, forms a double bind that makes it almost impossible to transform Swedishness into something that will also accept people of colour.”
How to come to terms—not only as an artist but an “artist of colour”—with my place in this society that I now call home? This is the question that burdens me. More so than the recurring inquiry from new acquaintances—How long will you stay in Sweden?—which veils their assumption that I should one day leave. And more so than the question of how to respond to the occasional late-night Nazi salute flourished in my direction or to the myriad other slights and offenses that niggle at one every day.
The first response, of course, is to push back. The bluntness of a violent reaction feels right in the moment, feels like it will get something across. But how provocative can it be, in the end, to react exactly as all these blank faces expect you to? Why let them put me in that box? The connection that I simultaneously spurn and desire, this nebulous “belonging,” is more nuanced than anything a clenched fist can precipitate. Its line stretches from the skittish outsider to the pinnacle of the Swedish alpha male, with his hair gelled back and his sport coat dry-cleaned for Friday night conquests, and it finds occasion in the lightness and simplicity of a touch.
– Santiago Mostyn
A decolonial reading of Santiago Mostyn's Delay (2014)
by Susanne Fessé
In the video work Delay (2014) by Santiago Mostyn I see how the artist moves like a dancer along the streets of Stockholm, concentrating his movement around Stureplan, the mecca of night life in the city. His tall figure sometimes pauses to blend in with young men. Mostyn imitates the men’s movements, strokes their cheeks and positions himself uncomfortably close. His declaration of tenderness creates responses of surprise, laughter, but also resistance. In one scene Mostyn is involved in a confrontation with one of the men and his physical movements develop into an uncontrollable fall along the street. Towards the end of the video we see Mostyn riding the subway out of the city, then further on, cycling through a park and finally running over a dark meadow, disappearing into darkness. In the last scene we see sleeping swans lying on a rock at night. The musical score, written by Slow Wave (Susanna Jablonski and William Rickman), accompanies the patterns of movement, both tonally and rhythmically.
The artist’s patterns of movement make me feel unsettled and I wonder if the film is a documentary or staged? Presumably my feelings stem from my uncertainty regarding Mostyn’s way of going inside a private bodily sphere, his ability to challenge the perceived normality of physical movements, and his complex relation to the men he meets on the street. In the following text I want to examine what relevance writings from a post-colonial discourse may have on Delay and/or whether a decolonial reading can be meaningful.
Initially I will take up contents from a number of texts from 1950 until the present, all of which are included in a post-colonial and decolonial discourse: Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask (1952); Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (1955); Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (2011); W.J.T. Mitchell, Seeing Through Race (2012); and Rolando Vasquez and Walter Mignolo, “Decolonial AestheSis: Colonial Wounds/Decolonial Healings”, “Decolonial AestheSis”, theme issue of Social Text: Periscope, 2013. As an art historian I find these texts extremely relevant for me to be able to ask questions or when attempting to identify which questions are evoked in me by the material. By studying theoretical texts, as well as art and literature, we can view our surrounding world in an historical context in order to clarify structures and historical events which may have contributed to the creation of colonialism, racism and the foundations for western traditions of knowledge. Such texts help us to see how present-day society has been imprinted by colonial legacies and they can help to elucidate ideas that have formed the foundations for a hegemonic norm, in which western traditions are considered to occupy a more elevated position than those of other cultures. I have also included parts of the interview I had with Mostyn in January 2017, which was supplemented by correspondence via email during September of the same year. The interview contributes factual information about the artist and an understanding of the artistic process involved in Delay.
Frantz Fanon wrote the book Black Skin, White Masks in 1952. The book could be said to originate in Fanon’s anger over the situation in his homeland, the island of Martinique, a former French colony in the West Indies (presently a French “overseas department”). His profession as a psychiatrist is reflected in the text, for example when he concludes that indigenous people’s inferiority complex and colonists’ arrogance create a state of neurosis which should be studied from a psychological perspective. The book describes how our society is either racist or not, a form of structuralist viewpoint. Fanon also proposes that there is no difference between the various forms of xenophobia. This idea has subsequently been picked up by others, among them, W.J.T. Mitchell, whose work I will be discussing later.
Aimé Césaire’s text Discourse on Colonialism, from 1955, reveals the invisible aspects of colonialization by citing canonical texts by European theoreticians and philosophers, showing how these texts form a tradition that engenders an ideology around colonialization. Césaire describes how a country that has colonized another country occupies a de-civilized position, a position which presupposes a hegemonic way of thinking where one people has total power over another.
The theoreticians mentioned above - Fanon and Césaire - were based in Martinque’s academic circles, but also spent time in Paris. Their texts have been used by the Négritude movement, a French-speaking literary circle that emerged among students in Paris in the 1930s. The movement strove to restore dignity amongst its members through writing about their lives and experiences resisting colonial powers, and struggling for national identity.
Édouard Glissant, also from Martinque and educated in Paris, used philosophy, poetry and facts in one of his last books, Poetics of Relation from 2009, to consider how we should “think with the world but act locally”. To do this we should consider a number of concepts. Creolisation, according to Glissant, involves perceiving the unpredictable in connections between cultures, embracing unexpected developments with others without being lost and corrupted. Archipelagic thinking involves seeing between the islands, beside the cliffs - in stark contrast to continental thinking, which involves a broader view and more reckless acts. The concept of opacity describes how everyone has the right to be incomprehensible and be interpreted on individual grounds , which Glissant relates to colonized people’s rights to self-determination of their own background and cultural codes. Glissant uses the concept of relation to contemplate where we are in the world in relation to others - the sentence “think with the world but act locally” is repeated here, emphasizing the importance of the subject’s identity and home ground.
Fanon, Césaire and Glissant shed light on structures and texts that establish racism. Their reflections came to play an important political role in bolstering previously colonialized countries’ inhabitants. Art both shapes and mirrors its time, but art has also followed developments within the post-colonial discourse and has changed in relation to its historical context. Glissant’s text widens a narrow, binary position, and challenges a way of thinking in which pairs of opposites are pitted against each other - as in Fanon and Césaire. Instead, Glissant’s text proposes a non-essentialist perspective, in which people’s distinctive individuality by way of biological preconditions is nuanced.
W.J.T. Mitchell’s book, Seeing through Race (2012) describes how we can regard the concept of race, not as a condition or a myth, but as a medium and a prism which it is possible to see through. Mitchell claims it doesn’t help to erase concepts like race, and referring to concepts such as Post Blackness, he criticizes aspects of the Post-Racial era. According to Mitchell, racism has created the concept of race and not the other way around, but racism will not disappear merely because the concept of race disappears. The book presents a complex picture of our present time, when the desire to move beyond concepts like race is not consonant with the proliferation of racism all over the world. It allows us to see our contemporary surroundings within a background of post-colonialization, but from the vantage point of today’s society.
Rolando Vazquez and Walter Mignolo’s published their article “Decolonial AestheSis: Colonial Wounds/Decolonial Healings” in a theme issue of Social Text: Periscope, 2013. The authors discuss the possibility of viewing artistic work via a perspective they call Decolonial Aesthesis. This concept lies within the discourse that can be compared to a paradigm shift within post-colonial theory. The authors aim to illuminate decolonial subjects through examples from art, theatre, music, performance, literature and poetry. They work with a decolonial method, with what they refer to as a “a non-normative space, as a space open to the plurality of alternatives”. The method is based on perceiving where the artist and the work come from, and localizing the subject of the art. The authors also highlight an alternative to the classic concept of Aesthetics (briefly, an 18th century western concept focusing on beauty and good taste): Aesthesis, which encompasses values like perception, sensation, emotional experience, and the act of envisioning in the process itself of creating and contemplating a work. In sum, a decolonial method is described as a way of exposing the wounds of colonization, but also of finding a path towards healing, recognition and the introduction of a type of aesthetics which has been eliminated from history for many years.
I met Mostyn in January 2017 and we spoke about his relationship to post colonialism and post-colonial theories. The interview was supplemented by information gathered in September the same year. Mostyn, who was born in San Francisco, California in 1981, moved to Zimbabwe in 1984, not long after the country’s independence (1980). He attended an old-fashioned colonial school, with strict teachers. Mostyn’s mother was a textile artist, running the textile department at a technical college which was started by the government in order to educate people who’d previously fought for Zimbabwe’s independence. In 1990, the family moved to Trinidad, where there was still a strong legacy of the 1970s Black Power movement. The school Mostyn attended included British colonial history and the slave trade in its curriculum, but without a critical perspective, as a subset within the subject of history. Mostyn first had the opportunity to fully relate to post-colonial theories when he enrolled in university - despite growing up in a post-colonial society. He doesn’t view his relation to the world as a bilateral one - homeland and colony - but rather in the form of a triangle between his experience of the US, his childhood in far corners of the Commonwealth and his present residence in Sweden. He explained how he feels that the generation before him fought an important battle for human rights (starting around 1950), but today he senses a danger in it becoming repetitive and fixed within a discourse. His own personal biography clearly informs his art, but he doesn’t actively use it as a source. Mostyn depicts his background as extremely academic. He was educated at Yale University, not in the practice of art, but in history and the liberal arts. While at university his choice of beginning to work with photography was questioned by other students, who chose to study political science or economics - art was not taken as seriously as these subjects.
Mostyn described how many artists would seek to legitimize their work with theories. Their practice might at first be a spontaneous process, but when exposed to criticism, art students seemed to want theory to lean on. He perceives a need for great risk-taking within artistic practice - and also on the part of the viewer of an artwork. As regards his own practice, it has taken him many years to retrain his brain, to shed its reliance on academic ideas. The theories he has read have, nevertheless, created a way to see the world and relate to his surroundings. Feelings have always been secondary in his education, both in school and at university. Now he is trying hard to “unsmarten himself”. He believes a balance of form and content is the key within his practice, taking influence from discourses in all the parts of the world where he is anchored culturally.
Mostyn is interested in pushing forward, developing the medium of art he works in and has created Delay as a music video. A great deal of research lies behind how one films and edits in relation to music. The video was distributed first on YouTube, which by definition made the work accessible and democratic. The viewer’s ability to relate to an artwork facilitates how its content is received.
Mostyn explained how his personal background contributes to a self-evident position in relation to post-colonial theories, which include the early texts of Fanon and Césaire. However, as an artist Mostyn does not use post-colonial studies as an immediate point of departure, even if they are in the background in many of his works. He has lived in several countries and studied in the US, and in Delay he relates to Sweden as a new place. With reference to Glissant’s text, Mostyn works like a cosmopolitan artist, using the perspectives he’s gained from living in different countries to scrutinize Sweden and Swedes. His body language is difficult to decipher; he inhabits a world view that is distinct from the men he meets (in the film), and the public viewing his work have no access to it. His art proceeds from his subject, but we cannot encompass it in one reading. However, his work also reflects what Glissant describes as the subject’s identity and home. Mostyn depicts his situation as “not only as an artist but an “artist of colour” in the introductory text for Delay, and describes how he has been exposed to "outsiderness”. However, that is not a central motif in his art practice; rather, in Mitchell’s terms, it is the prism through which everything is viewed.
During my meeting with Mostyn and in my study of Delay I have experienced an opportunity to see, by way of a decolonial reading, how the artist has worked with non-traditional aspects that encompass emotions, intuition and non-academic theoretical methods. I think this is important: to see beyond the post-colonial theories mentioned above and instead focus on how a western view of art has become a canon by narrowing down and demarcating concepts like aesthetics. In their text, Vazquez and Mignolo offer an alternative to the western definition of aesthetics: the concept of Aesthesis, which includes values like perception, sensation and emotional experience within the process of creating or contemplating a work of art.
Here we might approach a deeper understanding of the process I see Mostyn working with in Delay, a method that can lead to a recognition of emotional intelligence as a vital part of a reading of an artwork. A decolonial reading of Delay can open up for a wider view, beyond a fixed post-colonial theory. Is the film a documentary or are all the people who are visible part of a staged, directed work? The question remains but it has now paled and feels irrelevant. However, Mostyn is markedly enthusiastic when, in our conversation, I approach the subject of the distinction between a documentary and staged process. According to him, his method imbues the viewer with a feeling of uncertainty, which affects a reading of the work and pushes it in a wholly new trajectory.
Susanne Fessé, curator and art historian. She is the founder of Art/Sensation, a nomadic curatorial platform that emphasizes the importance of emotions surrounding art. The essay is a slightly edited version of an article published in VERK journal, 2017.
Translation: Jan Teeland.
Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, (1955) translated by Joan Pinkham, New York, 1972.
Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, translated by Betsy Wing, Univ. of Michigan Press, 1997.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Charles Lam Markmann, New York: Grove Press, cop. 1967.
Gunilla Håkansson, Négritude, Nationalencyklopedin, from web, http://www.ne.se/uppslagsverk/encyklopedi/l%C3%A5ng/negritude, 2016-12-22
Santiago Mostyn, Delay, text in the catalog for exhibition “The New Human”, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 2016.
Santiago Mostyn, Interview with Susanne Fessé, Stockholm 17-01-02, completed 17-09-22.
T.J.W. Mitchell, Seeing Through Race, Cambridge, MA, 2012.
Walter Mignolo and Rolando Vázquez Decolonial AestheSis: Colonial Wounds/Decolonial Healings,” Decolonial AestheSis”, theme issue of Social Text: Periscope, 2013, from web: http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_topic/decolonial_aesthesis/ 2016-12-22.