THE TRIBAL MIND

Several years ago I read a book about the prehistory of Skateholm in Scania, southern Sweden. If I recall correctly it was written by Lars Larsson, a professor specialized in Stone Age archaeology. The location in Skateholm has probably served as a graveyard and a settlement for a hunter-gatherer society. Skateholm is a perfect spot for this kind of living, close to different biotopes – the ocean, the river, the moorland, the forest and so on, which made it easy to get food. And the area was sparsely populated – a few hundred people in the whole of Scania.

Later, about 6000 years ago, southern Scandinavia was transformed into an agricultural society and started to rely to domesticated species. The society became stratified and the population dense.

The hunter-gatherer has occupied more than 90 % of human history, and without a doubt our brains are to a certain extent identical with our predecessors. Try this thought: Our brains are shaped for the life in small tribes, to get along with a certain, quite limited group (”us”). The evolution hasn’t developed our brains for the challenges of globalization. Yet. They still cherish the tribe (your friends, family), and the risk to develop xenophobia is clear.

Is it true? Well, I don’t know, but maybe it’s a way to understand the xenophobia that is so obvious in Europe (and of course in other parts of the world) today. The modern, contemporary society has made it possible for people from different areas and with different cultural backgrounds, to live close to each other, in metropolises, which has given us fantastic possibilities – and major cultural clashes. The world has become smaller, and the ethical borders are getting just as obvious as the national borders.

Joshua Greene has written the book Moral Tribes, which deals with questions of this kind. Give up your gut feeling. Give up the gods. And give up what’s called common sense. We need something new.

Collaborative skills are necessary for the evolution of humans. The survival of the fittest, and the fittest are probably the individuals with a great ability to collaborate. To get the group to work, some kind of uniting force, a glue, is needed, and according to Greene, this is one of the functions of morality.

The balancing between the individual and collective is regulated by a collaboration between the two basic morality systems: The fast, automatic system (instincts, social power, sexual attraction) and the slow, contemplative system. The systems could be dangerous: They are constructed for cooperation within a tribe or a group. The automatic system warns you for strange things and strangers (xenophobic), the manual works in both directions; we can use our manual system to claim the rights for our group at the expense of foreigners, but also to find solutions and compromises in conflicts between tribes. If you compare with a camera – for most tasks the automatic system is good enough, but sometimes, in certain cases, we need to use the manual mode, to make adjustments. And the manual mode is far more energy demanding.

We have to accept that different tribes have developed different ethical codes. And we are unable to come forward if we rely solely on our automatic system.

The automatic system could be really successful when a hostile tribe is trying to conquer the pastureland of your tribe. But in the globalized world of today, the same pattern could cause huge conflicts. Gay marriages, eating animals, Israel/Palestine, depicting prophets, circumcision, ecology, and so on. The solution, according to Greene, is to establish a global moral philosophy, and the best choice is utilitarianism, which is based on maximizing happiness and minimizing unhappiness. Since the “u-word” is full of negative associations, Greene uses the term deep pragmatism instead.

The other choices – the virtue ethics of Aristotle and the duty ethics of Kant – are both less attractive. The virtue ethics is tribal, and its rules are defined by group members, and Kant is too occupied with intuition. According to Greene, utilitarianism is the only ethic tradition that is able to solve problems in a globalized world where different tribes are colliding and competing.

But utilitarianism is controversial, and every situation has to be discussed. The effects can be absurd. Listen to the two stories below and you’ll get the point:

Story I: Four people need a new organ to survive. They meet a healthy person and claim their right to kill him and transplant the organs. On the plus side: Four saved lives. On the minus side: One dead person.

Story II: Ten pedophiles are out walking. They meet one kid. They claim their right to abuse the child. On the plus side: Ten happy pedophiles. On the minus side: One abused children.

The only solution is, as far as I can see, to use some kind of human rights (or maybe post-humanistic thinking).

There are some obvious problems with Greenes theory, but there are also some really good points: It offers an explanation of the origins of xenophobia and it highlights some of the problems we’re facing in a globalized world. The crucial point is that it’s just impossible to create a common morality. It works well in a laboratory, but it’s impossible in reality. The contemporary world is blended, every individual is a mix of different tribes and identities, you belong to several “we” at the same time.

I definitely agree with Greene in some parts; we succeed if we cooperate, it’s a kind a mutuality with origins in the early history of mankind. And I’m sure that certain kinds of xenophobia partly could be related to evolution. But I would also like stress that curiosity – the attraction to the exotic, the unknown and the frightening – is another fundamental part of the evolution. And this attraction is one of the driving forces for development and change. Xenophobia and curiosity have contradicted or complemented each other during the human history.

It’s also important to add that morality isn’t a fixed product. Every human interaction is a negotiation about morality – it’s something you do, rather than have. Thus, we can identify three ethic sources – the manual and cognitive, the evolutionary and biological, and the social and interactive.

The present and the future needs dialogue and tolerance more than anything. One thing is obvious – the world works better if we collaborate. David Hume has made a famous description of this: Two men are sitting in a boat, they don’t know each other, but they share the same goal – they both want to get to the shore. And even if they don’t share world view, they both know that if they cooperate – start rowing in the same direction and at the same pace – they will succeed.

The present in drag

It’s July 2016, we’re having a beer with my cousin Jenny, her daughter and her husband at Dieffenbachstrasse in Kreuzberg, Berlin. She has lived in Berlin for – well I don’t really remember, but let’s say – nine or ten years. First in an unmodern apartment in Friedrichshain, then in Kreuzberg, an area highly marked by gentrification, but still not really exploited.

I’m not sure why they left Sweden for Berlin, but I guess it was for the culture. Fredrik, Jenny’s husband, has been working with music for a long time, today he’s developing software for the music production industry.

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Berlin has been a center for arts and culture in Europe during the last decades. There are several reasons to that. The cheap apartments, the cheap studios, the underground scenes, the cultural diversity, the really powerful political history, the social tensions, the young population and so on.

The city has definitely made big efforts to get rid of the associations to the historic traumas, conflicts and shames. Today the tolerant, culturally vibrating Berlin is a part of the marketing of the city. The picture of the whole Germany is a country of humanitarian, ecological, cultural and economic success. Eden.

Peter Eisenman, Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas

We visit the Berlin Biennale, this year curated by DIS, a US quartet, who actually are more connected to design and fashion than art. The art world has been a bit nervous about this – will DIS produce a history-less biennale? Is this the very breakdown of the tradition? But – the answer is no. The Present in Drag is certainly a little bit off the beaten track, but most of the works could easily be interpreted within the traditional framework of contemporary art.

The curator team uses the city as a part of the exhibition. One of the venues is a former telecommunications bunker in Kreuzberg, today used for Feuerle Collection, a huge private collection: “The space marks the steady influx of collectors to Berlin—and the kinds of public-private partnerships driving its cultural economy.” Another venue is Akademie der Künste on Pariser Platz, at the same time a classic tourist trap and a spot for political, economic and national powers.

The theme of the biennale is the present. But the analysis isn’t made from the ‘outside’, no fly on the wall, because it’s just impossible, and therefore the “drag”-part of title. Our time is obviously disguised.

It is the present that is unknowable, unpredictable, and incomprehensible—forged by a persistent commitment to a set of fictions. There is nothing particularly realistic about the world today. A world in which investing in fiction is more profitable than betting on reality. It is this genre shift from sci-fi to fantasy that makes it inspiring, open, up for grabs, non-binary.

Everything is a product, entertainment and an experience at the same time. The biennale is made up of visual codes borrowed from life-style and advertising – the juice bar (Debora Delmar), the gym (Nik Kosmas), and the museum shop (TELFAR) are integrated parts of the exhibition and should be considered as art works. Huge light boxes remind of the language of commercialism, and the texts are written in a kind of marketing discourse – they are modelled on punchlines rather than coherence and fits the theme of The present in Drag. Well done.

Welcome to the post-contemporary. The future feels like the past: familiar, predictable, immutable—leaving the present with the uncertainties of the future. Is Donald Trump going to be president? Is wheat poisonous? Is Iraq a country? Is France a democracy? Do I like Shakira? Am I suffering from depression? Are we at war?

Anna Uddenberg is, as far as I can see, the only Swede among the participants. She displays several sculptures, most of them in staged “non-places”. Anonymous young females, one of them in an extreme selfie-position.

Another work with a funny touch is Camille Henrot’s Office of Unreplied Emails, in which she gives handwritten answers to automatic e-mails. The answers are overemotional and intimate and give a sharp contrast to the emails, sent by stores, activist groups and others, which Henrot previously has supported by donations or signing up. The work is a human comment to our age of rapid automatization.

Most of the artists are young, born in the 80’s or the 90’s, but there are at least one exception – Adrian Piper, born 1948. She displays some manipulated signs projected in dead-ends. It’s a kind of contradiction – “Howdy” (short for How do you do?) on no-entry signs.

What first reminds of a contemporary version of Duchamp’s Fountain, is a work by Shawn Maximo. He has refurbished one of the toilets at KW Institute for Contemporary Art and at the same time made it to an information center for the biennale. The private moments turn into the sphere of commodification.

The New York based artist Josh Kline shows the film Crying Games, which criticizes some of the leaders of the 2000s. Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others are played by actors, but the actor’s faces are replaced by the political leader’s faces by a simple software. They are crying out: “What have I done?”, “So many people”. A kind of historical revisionism and at the same time a weapon of critic.

Halil Altindere has made the refreshing hip hop-video Homeland in collaboration with a Syrian rapper; it’s blending shots from Istanbul and Berlin as a response to migration crises.

There are definitely parts of The Present in Drag that should be criticized. Some of the works are just not enough elaborated, some of them are too traditional. (I start yawning when I see too many video installations based on the typical mix of documentary and fictional content, especially if they are discussing political issues on routine. And I fall asleep when I have to look at some organic, ‘natural’ sculptures made of ready-mades in combination with traditional techniques, particularly if the concept is weak.)

Anyway. The biennale is definitely a good experience. Although it’s full of imitations, it feels honest. The imitation is clearly the critical tool.

The 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art materializes the paradoxes that make up the world in 2016: the virtual as the real, nations as brands, people as data, culture as capital, wellness as politics, happiness as GDP, and so on.