2015 - 2017 Helen Zeru: "How to account absence?"


Helen's 20 minute presentation for Maelstrom Slow Dance - DAI's 3 day graduation lectures marathon, June 2017 

A sun shower

‘the Hyena giving birth’

‘The Donkey is getting married’


Helen Zeru is sitting on the floor, stage left. A man sits on the other side of the stage. Both are facing the audience, and appear to be doing something with what looks like food materials, such as seed grains, and utensils for preparing food - a mortar and pestle. There is a microphone hovering above each set-up amplifying their activities. Helen begins speaking, first about the Netsa Art village in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then, more generally about the differences between formal and informal art institutions and their economies. Speaking from her own experience, she elaborates on the difficulty the Netsa Art village had to gain official status as an institution. There is no such thing as an informal module, she tells the audience, and there are only official ways of becoming official, which prohibit an informal institution such as the Netsa Art Village from ever becoming recognized and sustainable in a formal economy.

Ray Brassier responded to what he found to be a striking use of sound, its presence and immediacy. For him, the sounds seemed “to account for presence and for the informal.” This lecture performance seemed to be concerned with modes that are not sanctioned by the state and official economy, he recounted. He interpreted the seed grains as a reference or index for informal modes of making and exchanging goods (food, primarily). Paying attention to the text and relationship/interaction between the two performers and their manufacture of sounds, he found the “form” of the informal to be successful and convincing. He also complimented Helen on the way the performance lecture articulated performativity and conceptual components.

Gabi Ngcobo described it as a conceptually compelling piece in regards to the relationship it had to sound and material. It made her curious about the form of narrative itself and the unresolved tension it generated by giving the audience information and imparting knowledge. In terms of Helen’s choice of materials, Ngcobo remarked that she could imagine the same sounds being replaced by different materials. “I have an open question about the material - what about it gives us more information or knowledge to sort things out? The sound is developed through ideas of domestic labor and I’m intrigued about that.” Speaking of NGO-labeled institutions, Ngcobo wondered aloud how you start calling what you do ‘something’? “Government paranoias produce an interesting nothingness - or absences - that are accounted for in a different way.”

Rachel O’Reilly remarked that she really enjoyed the sound and the way that the combination of the argumentation and its soundtrack offered a fullness to the lecture performance. It provoked her to ask what is absent and what is unaccountable. While some sentences really appealed to her, she thought that the aspect of informal economy could still be brought more to the forefront of what Helen was exploring. Bringing up Brassier’s lecture of the previous night, and what many other students also seem to be dealing with, she remarked that “there is something about the experience of informal economy that we all share but that we experience differently in relationship to the kinds of institutional forms that we commit to and have to work with in certain locations.” For O’Reilly, the analytic theorization and way of dealing with something that is already instituted was rich. She enjoyed the sensory attention to the experience of the space. She also appreciated the attention given to colonialism being skeptical about different forms of value, including labor. 

Building on previous comments, Bassam el Baroni remarked that this was “less an argument for informal economies than it is a comparative engagement with the deep enmeshment between formality and informality across a postcolonial trajectory.” Continuing with this thought, he said,  “Absence here is somehow an impossibility of being present despite your presence.” This can become problematic when artists with an informal economy are called to be present in a place with a more formal economy because of this very complex entangled relationship of economies”. El Baroni said this needs to be recognized, and appreciated the powerful line in Helen’s text: “in places where there is a formal art economy, only formal social institutions can only be a function of the formality”. El Baroni stresses that the relationship of accounting to the economy is important (like the materiality of the grains) - and thus the act of accounting becomes the representation that it is supposed to be. Bringing the idea of sovereignty to the table, he asks if we could also see this in relationship to Achille Mbembe and the idea of necropolitics.

Learn more about Helen Zeru Araya’s written MA thesis:

Learn more about Helen Zeru Araya’s "life after DAI" by means of Helen's website