Sam Melser

Please find below three examples of my writing. One is in fact a talk I gave at a the University of Auckland Art History conference in Auckland in 2019 and another, an article I published in a book with a group of other artists and social scientists also in Auckland, in 2018. The most recent one is a project I wrote for an interdisciplinary exhibition about the destiny of the Human, in Berlin, in 2021 called "Becoming Human". Each of them provide theoretical context and other details about my approach to and philosophy of art.  

I've written several other texts, notably about NZ pakeha artist Roger Mortimer (catalogue currently in printing phase) so please contact me if you want to read more. Writing about art and about specific artists work, is something I gain huge satisfaction from.   

Art History conference

For those of you who don’t know me, I grew up in the Wairarapa, in Masterton. My mother was a social worker and my father a furniture maker and philosopher. I come from a family of craftspeople and social critics and have been especially privileged in many ways. My four grandparents were teachers. My father’s mother was perhaps my most influential family mentor. She was a successful reading specialist, author of internationally published children’s readers and the leader of our matriarchy.

Since returning a bit more than 4 years ago from Europe, where I lived for more than 15 years, mainly in France (where I spent 7 years in higher education with no student debt), my ideas about art and culture have changed considerably. Today I wanted to present a separate talk to the one my colleagues Lara and Nigel will or have presented as I wanted to talk about the interests in Prehistory and Prehistoric Art that I developed in France, and how they relate to the specific cultural and historic context here in Aotearoa.

I’d like to start with a citation by Linda Tuhiwai Smith in her 1999 book Decolonising Methodologies Research and Indigenous peoples:

History was the study of people who were regarded as fully human. Others who were not regarded as human (that is, capable of self-actualisation) were prehistoric.

Living and studying art in France was a temporal shock. In virtually all villages and cities, there is a complex layering of different human architectures and occupations spanning thousands of years. I went to Avignon art school -- Avignon being the Catholic capital of Europe during the 14th century before Rome, and also studied in Bordeaux where, not only did I get to know Bacchus, the god of wine, I also spent a great deal of time at the local history museum le museed’Aquitaine. Bordeaux was a major port during the French colonial period and the Contemporary Art Museum, the CAPC, is today housed in a huge historic building, a former warehouse for colonial imports where goods such as sugar,coffee, and cotton entered France during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Bordeaux is also a few hours drive from the famous Lascaux prehistoric cave with paintings that have been dated at around 17,000yrs BC. In the Musee d’Aquitaine, the Bordeaux history museum, I found, on permanent display, very early chopper flint tools over a million years old and also one of the masterpieces of prehistoric carving – Venus a la Corne.

I remember once at Art school we went on a class trip to the countryside. A stony, dry, arid and barren landscape where trees and plants have great difficulty growing. After our dejeuner sur l’herbe, I went on a solo walkabout, where, miles off the beaten track, I came across – a dolmen. A construction from between 4-5000 years ago. This, and several other experiences with different historical and temporal realms I had previously known, suddenly became part of my everyday experience. In addition to this cultural landscape, the past did not seem to be repressed in quite the same way as it had been when I was growing up. The past was not something we needed to get over, to move on from, but is in your face all the time. In France, prehistory is part of pop culture, it is everywhere. Yet here, it is something quite different.

In August 2018, TVNZ was forced to pull a revisionist and faked documentary called NewZealand: Skeletons in the Cupboard from their on-demand service. As part of what TVNZ called its documentary and factual section, this story hypothesised the arrival of Celts -- red haired giants and blond haired fairies-- in NZ thousands of years before the Maori. Mediawatch, thank goodness, was concerned about the ridiculous claims this program was making and it was taken off the TVNZ website. This pseudo-documentary masks an extreme right wing attempt to deny Maori tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty) and consequently to deny Maori a stake in the Te Tiriti o Waitangi treaty agreement.

Indeed, prehistory in Aotearoa is problematic for many reasons. Linked to this archaeological fabrication with white supremacist undertones are other incipiently racist implications based on historical and colonial oppression. As Tuhiwai Smith observes, when the European settlers arrived in Aotearoa, (and indeed, in numerous other lands around the world) –Maori were believed to be “prehistoric” – as if they were relics of the European Stone Age. Primitiveness was an exclusionary colonial label whereby the indigenous peoples were denied contemporaneity and indeed history. Although this idea of cultural superiority is repugnant and racist for many of us today,the belief in cultural or evolutionary stages is a very persistent one, which has traction in popular psychology, popular anthropology and more generally in popular culture. Disentangling “prehistory” from colonial racism and prejudice is, I believe, important work.  

Prehistory, as it is understood in Europe, is the scientific field of cultural history before the emergence of writing -- which took place in Mesopotamia some 5000 years ago. Writing, as a form of genealogical documentation recognising whakapapa (genealogy) and lineage, has been embodied in Maori ta moko (tattoo)and whakairo (carving) and practiced throughout Moana Oceania (The Pacific Ocean) for millennia. Yet another form of arrogant colonial humiliation was to suggest Maori didn’t have writing and were therefore “primitive”. For these reasons and others, prehistory isn’t popular here. It is politically charged and highly sensitive due to the necessary links with colonialism and evolutionism.

In museums throughout Europe, human remains and facsimiles of human remains are exhibited as scientific proof of the ancient prehistoric provenance of humans. In a secular space informed by material culture and scientific method, human remains serve as evidence, challenging the traditional Christian narrative of divine creation in the Bible. Here, in Aotearoa, for cultural reasons, human remains cannot be displayed – it is an entirely different context. Different circumstances and different narratives are in play and at war. Although in Europe human remains are exhibited as neutral scientific specimens, in Aotearoa, due to a negotiated process of decolonisation, museum ethics in this country does not allow this.

Critical researcher Tony Bennett, in the 2004 work Pasts beyond Memory suggests the European concept of prehistory was transformed into a vehicle for evolutionism, and that the belief in cultural and material superiority was used as a colonial ideology of domination that took place in the museum space. Another recent work looking at ideas of colonialism and prehistory is the recently published Galleries of Maoriland, by Roger Blackley, in which Blackley suggests that Maori prehistory was used in the early 20th century as a bi-cultural claim for a national “Pakeha” art -- as a type of pakeha appropriation of Maori history and mythology for the Western art tradition. A certain type of prehistory was undoubtedly used as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ of indigenous cultures -- a science of reason and proof that sought to supplant the shadows of myth and legend. This reading of a modern shift from myth to reason is glaringly simplistic and naïve.

In Europe, especially in France and Germany where capitalism is still kept at a distance from educational institutions, in my experience anyway, secular beliefs dominate academic institutions. Prehistory is not seen as another form of colonial universalism that threatens indigenous sovereignty so much as an idealistic federating principle – a common concept of a united identity. No longer part of a dialectic or nationalist ‘us vs them’ universalism, the story of common origins is a story often seen as an archaic common ground we all stem from and are part of.

The Master Narrative, the Story of US, of Humanity, of African origins, and the exploration of the globe over hundreds of thousands of years is rarely seen, in Europe, as one of modern colonial expansion and capitalist Imperialism but rather as a critique of anthropocentrism and religious fanaticism.

In addition to the discovery of prehistoric art as a major contributor to the construction of the modern art psyche, so too was the realisation that the earth was once inhabited not by humans but by animals such as dinosaurs, or more recently mammoths, or here, in Aotearoa, moa or giant eagles. The understanding of geological time, the discovery of dinosaur bones in America in the mid 19th Century and the discipline of comparative anatomy all contributed to a modern paradigm shift in the way Europeans represented their place in nature and in time. In 1880 the Altimira Cave was discovered in the north of Spain. It has been dated to between 20 and 36 000 yrs BC. It was the first cave to be rediscovered in the context of European Art History. In 1940, the Lascaux Cave, dated at 17,000 BC, was discovered by a few curious boys and a dog. Indigenous Australian rock art has been dated to over 40 000 yrs in many different sites around Australia. Rock art has also been found in Africa, here in Aotearoa and, indeed, in most parts of the world. Gerard O’Reagan is the local specialist on NZ rock art, and he has written extensively on the subject. Rock art was discovered in Aotearoa in the 1950’s. Modern artists jumped on it. In 1992, to the joy of prehistoric art researchers, the Chauvet Cave was discovered in the South of France – a cave known as the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art. All these discoveries have hada profound effect on artists and have greatly contributed, at least in Europe,to a new understanding of the temporal and geographic depth of human aestheticexperience. The origins of art and of the aesthetic mind dissolve with a prehistoric definition of culture including language and tool use.

In 1937, MOMA organised the exhibition “Modern art 5000 Years Ago” featuring Miro, Klee and Max Ernst among many others. In 1948, MOMA also put together the exhibition “Timeless Aspects of Modern Art” where prehistoric art, (mostly portable bone carvings) and modern art was staged together in the same modernist context. This exhibition included the famous Willendorf statuette. Also in 1948, in London, Herbert Read organised “40 000 Years of Modern Art” which was a combination of prehistoric, non-Western and modern art, including artworks by the surrealists and the expressionists.

More recently, in 2017, the HKW museum in Berlin curated an exhibition called “Neolithic Childhood” which looked at the incredibly creative inter-war years in Europe and notably the 1930’s before Hitler’s rise to power, when German art critic and historian Karl Einstein used prehistoric art to criticise simplistic and reductive models of progressive art history. Deconstructing chronology was at the heart of Einstein’s endeavour. He sought to embrace a form of historical transgression whilst at the same time being suspicious of the oppressive nature of rationalist industrialisation he was witnessing. The recent exhibition in Berlin, “Neolithic Childhood”, and the current “Prehistory – a modern Enigma” at the Pompidou Centre in Paris both look at different ways of thinking about Modern and Contemporary Art.

One of the things the current exhibition in Paris, Prehistoire: Un enigma modern, gets us to think about is the fact that modernity, and indeed modern art, in addition to housing the forward thinking ideology of progress, also fosters a conceptual movement of temporal regression, of reconstructive history and the beginnings of a scientifically inspired European imagination around “deep time”.

The idea that the world has not always been this way suggests equally that, in the future, things might also be different. In thinking about origins from all angles we can contribute to the discussion of our destiny, of where we should be going in light of the incredible journeys both heroic and horrible, that we have so far undertaken. This painful discussion is long overdue, yet if we are to imagine a cross-pollinated world beyond fear, it is perhaps necessary.

To think about prehistory is to contemplate alternative, perhaps retrogressive and transgressive, temporalities. A-syncronicity, allochrony, uchrony and anachronisms are all narrative devices-- admittedly favoured by science fiction -- that question chronology and the dominant forward-thinking hegemonic tendency of consumer capitalism. Looking at prehistory and prehistoric art is a methodology that I, as an artist and as a researcher, have found to enable a space of both engagement and contestation --and an aesthetic and imaginary field of connection.

Kia ora.

The below paper appeared in the Publication "Everything's Fucked but the point is to go beyond that" in 2018. 

See images in Books and Publications in this website.

Empathy training, the aesthetics of profit and the hegemony of utilitarianism

Science, in its blind obsession with objectivity, has trained contemporary society to be emotionally distant, detached and neutral. We have become slaves to scientism and unfortunately, science has not been able to have the influence on the modern world that it promised. Even if it could be argued that science is not inherently good or bad, that it is simply a methodology of looking at the world, it has now become a way of being that neutralises the human spirit and does not emancipate it. My argument here is not that we need to unlearn the scientific method but that we need to know when the scientific mindset is useful, which is not all the time. Modern science emerged during the Enlightenment period at a time when religious dogma and superstition were dominant cosmologies yet today, it seems, we have lost the faculty for imagination and are paralysed by functionalism and pragmatism.

The futurists, henchmen of the possible, hope that one day we will live forever. They sincerely believe, as did the 19th century industrialists, that technology will liberate us and enable a new type of human freed from the constraints of repetition and back breaking mindless labour. In the future, predict the futurists, we will all be able to use our heads for securing our sustenance and no longer our bodies, which we can either protect and cultivate or replace.

Now that we have established that there is no universal human nature, no essential or absolute ontological rupture between man and the rest of the organic world, a certain strain of scientism believes synthetic artificial intelligences are potentially more valuable than traditional humanist ones. Programming algorithms for AI can only be about what people want and not about what people need. The problem is that this fabrication is being constructed by institutions that defend self-realisation, free will and individualism, yet paradoxically, create mindless consensus and enslavement through fear and consumerism.

The other day on the radio,I heard a psychiatrist talking about automated mental health consultations. He spoke of one of his subjects with severe depression who had not been diagnosed as such by several different G.P’s, human error, and who was able to, essentially,self-medicate. The idea was that you type into a computer program how (bad)you’re feeling and an automated list of prescription drugs becomes immediately available to the consumer. The program is sponsored by a leading pharmaceutical company. Great news—no more human error.

This strict definition of ‘normal’ is perhaps what characterises our fear inspired society where diversity should be in the supermarket and not in the minds of people. Repression and the distaste of offending translates to not being able to ask the real questions—those questions whose responses cannot be easily automated. This society that demands constant superficial feedback in the form of questionnaires is not able to ask the real questions like: how do we leave the capitalist economy?

Many artists are paralysed by societies’ norms and resort to creating easily consumable aesthetic objects for the marketplace. Like every other capitalistic force, artists have mortgages and loans and are more and more silenced by the omnipresent economic logic. They often resort to cynicism or worse sitting on the fence with the belief that art is beyond morals, beyond a social conscience, or that political and ethical engagement restricts potential public interest (sales), which they cannot afford.

The price of engaged or critical art is, however, often at the expense of aesthetics and unfortunately, it is either badly crafted or artificially intellectualised, becoming sterile and square in the minimal/conceptual tradition. This methodology is defended as a resistance strategy to consumerist beauty, yet it can also operate as an elitist and hermetic measure of division.

Art must question liberal economics and democracy alike if it is to have currency in today’s screen addicted society. Just as we have been driven to compete with  the images of advertising we must now fight with and against screens which are at the same time blinding us and bringing us light. Is it possible to create an art that is at the same time critically aware and aesthetically stimulating and challenging? Is the role of the artist to advance politically correct liberal economic democracy or to throw art bombs of political resistance? Is aesthetics structurally different to politics or are they inextricably linked?

Thinking artists or intellectuals are not sheep is naïve. We are conditioned to believe we are all different to refrain from feeling sentiments of solidarity and camaraderie. Isolation and alienation are not effects of neoliberal individualism but desired outcomes.Creating frustration and then creating pseudo solutions is part of the business. Frustration is something that has been fabricated by psychologists and commercial marketing strategists since the end of the Second World War.The function of consumerism is to attend to our primary instincts, that of security and comfort,and to pamper the physiological in order to diffuse existential angst. The only way that consumerist society enables us to take action is to buy, whether that be a house, a car, a watch or the newest shampoo. For consumer society, to take action is to spend money.

Taking meaningful action is not easy.

In contemporary neo liberal society, we learn to look out for ourselves, to protect ourselves before anyone else and have essentially lost the motivation towards sacrifice. The closest we get to sacrifice is through representation, through our identification withthe latest hero or anti-heroin either mainstream or alternative forms of fiction.Everyone can potentially identify with the hero—those who defythe odds and go against the grain. In fact, the conventional hero figureis little more than the neoliberal puppet who fights for the underdogsand, once they win, enablesthe underdogsto consume until they become blind. HungerGames and Avatar are greatexamples of the apparent reversal of dominant political narratives for thepretext   of making profit. Resistance has become a commodity,another popular theme for selling.

Why revolt when a representation cando it so much better? Why sacrificeour comfort and security for an abstract causelike critical thinking when we can do it allthrough fiction? We are taught, as colonial subjects, to forget as much as we can of the past and as best we can. Drugs, fast food, technology and dominant forms of fiction all helpus do this. They all serve as tools for distraction.

This amnesic society is foreverattempting to black out our colonial past. Why do we avoid the difficult questions ofpossession, ownership and private property at schoolwhen we obsess about apparently important technical issues such ascoding? Technical knowledge can be ass- essed unlike moral and social knowledgewhich require empathy: we areconvinced that onlythe quantifiable and empiricalhave currency.

We live in a consensusof utilitarianism and pragmatism.Politicians in thiscountry allow immigrants entry only if theyeither bring skills we are lacking or if they bring money. Hegemonic neoliberal economics fuelled by an ethics of profit, pragmatism and utilitarianism is making us more and moreinhuman. Artists are no different to the generalpublic in the sense that they too are restrictedby an economic system that they would perhapslike to criticise but by which they are imprisoned.

Taking meaningful action is not easy.

My observation is that art, if it is to become effective in this society, and not only produce trophiesfor the wealthy, must engage with the public andprovoke encounters of disruption and irrelevance. Disruption of the consensual blind consumerist ethos and irrelevance as the method.   I see more and more scientific studies coming out thatassure society that art is useful,that it can reduce feelings of frustration, anguish andisolation, for example. A cynic mightsuggest that in the coming years art will be entirely absorbed into the rubbishdump of mindfulness. I do hopethat both General Practice doctorsand psychiatrists share with us some of their socialreverence and that the idea of‘healing’ be more broadly understood.

Whether it be knitting, gardening orpainting, more and more proofis emerging that art is good for you, but shouldwe not be questioning this all-powerful consensus around utilitarianism and productivity? It is as if we are forcedto speak the dominant language, that of utilitarianism, if we are to be heard. But why not create analternative philos- ophy that is not based on increasing productivity, with speed and efficiency as the onlyrespected values?

The question is how can art, if art it is to be defined in a way that is not simply another commodity, remainpertinent. How can it maintain autonomy yet at the same time stay open to theoutside world and help bring colour toan increasingly grey and paralysing society? How can we use it to disrupt theeveryday continuum of neoliberal economics?Are we forced to createelectronic viruses and demand ransom or is there another way to communicate ourcivic responsibility to combat injustice? Could it be possible to infectcorporate ideologies of profit from withina corporation?

Taking meaningful action is not easy, but it is our duty.

Exhibition project for the exhibition "Becoming Human", Berlin, 2021.

Prehuman, human, posthuman

Prototype for an alter for past, present and future humanities

Searching for an allusive specificity of the human and inciting thinking about what makes us human, is a complex endeavour. Indeed, the question suggests that there is something that does – make us human– something essentialist and universalist- something that not only distinguishes us from each other but also from other organic lifeforms.

Depending on our fields of expertise, we tend to locate Human exceptionalism in, for example : intelligence, a large brain, tool use, art, language, cooperation, technology, religion, creativity, consciousness, the social or the cultural. Increasingly however, it is becoming apparent that everything that we previously thought that made us human, is performed by other forms of life - sometimes better, sometimes not quite so well. Everything is pointing towards the fact that qualitative difference is subsiding in favour of quantitative difference. In addition to those researchers looking to identify characteristics of “human nature” from the organic domain, many more are now looking to compare the human, not with the living but with the inorganic – with robots, robotic devices and with forms of Artificial Intelligence that can self-reprogram and learn. 

Different revolutions concerning the Human and our perception of ourselves are unfolding under our eyes and indeed, it is time to look at where we want to go as a species. Climate change, the decomposition of ecosystems and the emergence of viruses represent organic and bio-chemical dangers, yet technology and generative AI represent dangers that are both political and social. Both dangers are, in fact, emergent realities. 

Two essential questions that technology experts are looking at are: what can a human do that a Robot, capable of learning, cannot? And what are Humans going to do when Robots have taken our jobs and with it, the necessity to work? It is these questions that I hope to elucidate whilst collaborating with your exciting partner institutions, including Acatech, for the final design and content of my installation project.

If one were to relativise the place of our planet within the infinite Cosmos and that of the Human within the larger schema of the history of life on earth, then our pretentions of being in pole position, of driving, become somewhat absurd. In this bigger picture view, anthropocentrism becomes a form of blindness, a disease. If we operate this change of perspective, (from close to far), relativizing our significance in the Cosmos and in a larger scale of Time, our urgent responsibility to restore balance within ever fragile ecosystems we depend on for existence, is further accentuated.

In spite of this cynicism towards a definite human identity, part of the solution to the question of what makes us Human could well be found in our ability to integrate new (microscopic) forms of life into our genetic composition. Indeed, the identity of the Human concerns our biological composition and our ability to incorporate minute foreign lifeforms. Thanks to hundreds of millions of microscopic beings on our skin and composite within our living organic tissue, humans over the course of several hundreds of thousands of years, have incorporated, domesticated and naturalised, hundreds of thousands of species of foreign genes - up to 50 percent of our genetic makeup. The integration of the Covid-19 virus, or our defences to it, is currently underway.

What kind of society do we want to create and what is the place of the Human in this emergent techno-humanoid cyberspace where robots and AI can do everything we can do better and faster? When private technology corporations become more influential than nation states, how can we verify the will of the people (self determination?) is respected? Indeed, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Democratic and Humanist foundations of Western European society are being questioned by algorithm developers who create, in a context of pure technique devoid of human ethics, probable behavioural predictions producing prospective future scenarios. The logic is that because it happened in the past, it will happen again in the future.

The problem with technicians, and scientists in general, is that they often believe their work is undertaken in a vacuum – that the technical challenges and accomplishments are, in themselves, an achievement and worthy of self-gratification (anthropocentric and white supremacist). I once spoke to a French nuclear physicist who proclaimed the incredible technical prowess (French nationalism) of testing Nuclear Bombs at Mururoa atoll in the South Pacific in the 1990’s. He was absolutely certain there was no ecological danger to the local population and to ecosystems. Who was I, an artist from New Zealand, who’s French was not especially good at the time, to tell him, that he was under a cloud of illusion, that he was a slave to the worst kind of technology that exists – that devoid of Human ethics! What we need to do is to connect things, to create inter-pollination of disciplines and bridges of communication - we need to combine and connect ethics and technology, the material and the immaterial and build manifestations of confusion. I hope to do this in the form of an anachronistic and secular alter, a contemporary art installation.  

My work depicts unfamiliar but apparently biological phenomena, in vaguely evocative but visually compelling assemblages. But the ‘depictions’ are so indistinct and/or ambiguous as to baffle viewers’ natural tendency to find culturally normal interpretations. There is only the possibility, not the reality, of corroboration as to identifiable ‘objects’. The resulting visual insecurity is highlighted by the presence in the work of occasional conventional percepts in the ‘foreign’ form of appliqué– playfully implying that the uninterpretable background is the reality. The work thus brings the viewers’ normal reliance on others’ perceptual corroboration into self- awareness, celebrating (by ostensibly questioning) this most fundamental transcultural commonality. The work shows us one of the cornerstones of the togetherness that makes us human.

Core questions

The core questions I am asking concern the destiny of the human animal : is it possible to look at the Human without looking at the prehuman and the posthuman? Are the values and practices of Humanism, those founded on the exploitation, dissection, and separation of nature and culture still useful? How can we practice the Maori concept of kaitiakitanga, where Humans have a responsibility of reciprocity and guardianship towards nature and not a licence to exploit and indefinitely extract. This last question is to be asked in collaboration with Maori Cultural expert colleagues included in this conversation of new technologies and ethical sustainable futures. Confluent in these above questions are those we proposed further above – what can a Human do that a Robot can’t and what will humans do when we no longer need to work?   

Research and links

During the course of putting this project file together, thefollowing audio-visual documents and stories were significant in my researchand I hope to explore them further in my installation project:

Using Format