Audio-guide Polyphony

Data Hacktivism in the Weltmuseum Wien

Recently an artistic intervention in the museum took to the political stage when Socialist Democratic party representative Petra Bayr brought a motion regarding the repatriation of the infamous Aztec crown to the Austrian parliament. It’s an object whose significance has often shifted between art and demonstration. Activists have drawn on the long-running struggles for ownership of this crown in creating an intervention that injects this object’s fraught history into the museum’s audio guides. Now momentum has entered filmmaker Sebastian Arrechedera’s idea for audio-guide polyphony and is growing into a documentary film about the movement to repatriate the feather headdress to Mexico from Vienna.
As Rainbow Lobster from LA and Mexico City, Arrechedera released a teaser on TikTok that went viral and made its way back to Vienna where no one had noticed his audio guides were circulating for over a month through the museum. A short film on shows their process of collaborating with Viennese local Julian Reinisch of Apex film to infiltrate the museum. They inserted around 50 new audio guides into the ones already in circulation at the front desk, carefully not enlisting Mexican passports, which gain them free entry to the Weltmuseum.
The cleverness of this would not be lost on the director of the Weltmuseum, Jonathan Fine, who is an American lawyer-turned-curator. “Great” he said to me, “people need to talk about what the hell is going on, and if we are not doing that then otherwise we [museums] are just dead mausoleums of dead objects that people here don’t want and people elsewhere might want.” I asked Arrechedera what he thought of Fine’s response, and he said he found it appropriate, because “we did it in a not harmful way”. What can the museum say, when Mexicans continue to invest into efforts to have their history restored. This is grassroots and self-financed by “a hub of freethinkers co-creating and producing transmedia storytelling” who are adamantly “not a production company, or a writer’s room, neither advertising agency, nor an artist collective”.
The museum came out with an official statement that “this is an exciting contribution to the discussion about postcolonial collections in ethnographic museums… and fits well our idea of diversity (Vielsimmigkeit)”. Vielsimmigkeit can also be translated as polyphony, if we take the musical analogy of many voices speaking, not necessarily in harmony, but also without a hierarchy of importance.

The museum intervention had to be savvy about legalities. Arrechedera and his collaborators were careful not to break any major laws. For instance, if they had replaced the headsets then they would have technically stolen those belonging to the museum. Instead, they did the museal equivalent of what artist Marisa Jahn called “shopdropping”, in which objects are dropped into the shop rather than lifted in an act of “shoplifting”. Inserting new audio data into the headsets in the museum’s collection, they gave a gift to the museum. It would be a gift that keeps giving if the museum kept them in circulation.

The point is that visitors to the museum should be able to choose which voice they want to listen to – that of a descendent of the Aztecs and traditional owner of that knowledge or that of the museum. Then it would be a democratic system for the national museum, where those that pay to see the collection could choose which version of its interpretation they listen to. People who hire the audio guides that want to learn more about the collection, and these guides often function as the first port of call for those uncertain of what they are seeing. Conditioned to listening to the authority of the voice in the headset, museum visitors are less prone questioning of the uncertainty of the history of contested objects when these histories aren’t addressed within the authority of the audio guides.

When I wrote my book The Contested Crown: Repatriation Politics between Mexico and Europe I was also experimenting with a method of polyphony by leaving large swathes of interviews with Xokonoschtletl Gómora and others in their own words, because their voices had not previously been heard. In a chapter on writing as listening, I reflect on Mexican sociologist Rolando Vazquez’s ideas on the decolonization of modernist aesthesis through a practise of respectful listening. The audio guide resonates as a translation of these ideas into direct artistic action.

The Weltmuseum version of the feather headdress’ history undermines the preciousness by beginning their narrative saying there were “countless” numbers of these crowns. Then it quickly turns to the birds, with platitudes like “they are indeed very long [feathers]”. “When you leave this room you will see a stuffed quetzal, it was considered sacred…” as if taxidermy was a religion outside the walls of the Western museum. The hacked and titled Audio Guide of the Truth says it is “symbol of peace, duality, beauty and nature… wisdom, power, eternity…” while the museum tries to debunk that “numerous legends were associated to this feather headdress, some of which persist stubbornly till today, for example that it was the feather crown of the ruler Montezuma, this can’t be true…” The indigenous audio guide replies: “we do not believe in the untruths told for so many years”.
Euphemistic vaguery in the Weltmuseum’s original audio guide of untruths is also evoked with statements about the gold being replaced “with a good deal of imagination”, when in fact the large birds’ helmet of gold was stolen sometime during its time in Habsburg possession. The dated and manipulated technical study that is used by Austria to say the crown is “too fragile” to travel back to Mexico is cited as a given, although conservators and engineers around the world agree that the technology to safely transport it does exist. Hence the Socialist Democrat representative Petra Bayr brought a motion to the Austrian parliament on April 7th, 2022, to have a new scientific study made that investigates the options for safe transport to Mexico. This would easily dismantle the last firm reason to hold onto the piece in Europe, which is nothing but an imperial conservation claim masquerading as hard science. Recounting the details of the parliamentary debate to me the following day Bayr said
“the only argument that remains to not return it is the technical way to transport this object”. “It was said in parliament that this object didn’t come ‘unlawfully’ into Austrian possession” to which Bayr replied that “it’s a question of morality and ownership and a question of who
does it belong to, not only in a material sense, but in a spiritual, historic and emotional sense also – what does all the debate of restoring cultural items tell us? This has played an important role with Nazi artefacts also.”

The movement to repatriate stolen objects and to decolonize the museum has made the repair of colonial wounds an ethical imperative, side-lining pseudo-objective arguments about missing provenance. The Repatriates project that will spend the next 5 years with European Research Council support to study processes of return from museums to stakeholder communities may get a scientific study that does not enshrine the interests of the political organization that commissions it. Based at the Central European University in Vienna, Repatriates is the first artistic research project of its scale, working in Namibia, Benin, Australia and Mexico.

Rainbow Lobster recorded Xokonoschtletl for the audio guide in Mexico City on the day of the 500-year anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlan. The emotional temperature is high on this day every year and was exceptionally so on the semi-millennium of colonization. When I asked Arrechedera about the voice of Xokonoschtletl he said “We couldn’t have just any voice. We needed a voice with authority. He represents those Aztecs that have been oppressed in Mexico. He raised his voice and dedicated his life to this cause. He has been forgotten. He went to UN and organized a shamanic act. He met with the Pope and the Dalai Lama. He brought hundreds of Mexicans to the museum. He represents a lot of indigenous people who are dancers and survived the time when even their dances were forbidden: one of the most amazing civilizations fell because of the invasion.”

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