BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 01 SEP 10
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Issue 133

Pick & Mix

What is ‘super-hybridity’?

BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 01 SEP 10

This summer I’ve been listening to a lot of Gonjasufi, a 32-year-old, dreadlocked yoga teacher and ex-rapper from Las Vegas. Born Sumach Ecks to a Mexican, soul-loving mother and an Ethiopian–American, jazz-loving father, during college he studied Islam but, put off by jihadi fundamentalism, he turned to Sufi mysticism. Released earlier this year, Gonjasufi’s debut solo album, A Sufi and a Killer, includes lots of samples yet is analogue in feel; it’s a seamless flow of music made up of seams. The Abstract Expressionist, psychedelic blues of Captain Beefheart melds with brooding Californian hip-hop, moody Memphis soul and George Clinton funk; a soft bossa nova combines with sweet, Asian-pop na-na-na-na vocals, home recording-style crackling, distorted voices and percussion. One track, ‘Klowds’, is based on a piece of groovy 1960s Rebetiko (often described as the Grecian blues). Gonjasufi’s lyrics are a clash of psychoactive infusions and religious and romantic parables (a melancholic lion, for example, tells a tight-lipped shepherd that if he was ‘one of your sheep, I wouldn’t have to kill to eat’). To put it simply, Gonjasufi could be the poster boy for the phenomenon I have provisionally labelled ‘super-hybridity’.

Hybridity as a concept was developed in the 1990s by a number of post-colonial theorists, most notably Homi K. Bhabha. It describes cultural identity not simply as a product of tradition, but as a partly open, partly clandestine negotiation of in-betweenness. The concept has been variously accused of romantically overestimating the cultural agency of the colonized vis-à-vis the colonizers, while perpetuating conservative constructions of ethnicity and race; of largely ignoring the economic conditions that affect cultural interactions and of feeding into the pretentious academic posturing of a cosmopolitan élite. These are allegations worth debating, but mostly in terms of demanding a shift in emphasis or a broadening of perspective. More exasperating than these objections is the sweeping dismissal of hybridity that followed in their wake, seemingly expressing a nostalgic longing for Cold War-era ‘truths’.

Ironically, this dismissal occurred at the very moment when the cultural techniques of hybridization became ubiquitous, accelerated and diversified; it is lazier than ever to dismiss it as a quirky theory for self-indulgent intellectuals. This exponential increase comes courtesy not only of, unsurprisingly, the Internet (that a new generation of artists has grown up with) and the antagonistic, ravenous dynamism of globalized capitalism, but also of people’s desire to macerate the limits of oppressive traditions, censorship, xenophobia and perception itself.
The phenomenon of hybridity could be seen as a ‘mere’ quantitative factor. But, like most quantitative factors, this one also has a tipping point. Thus, ‘super-hybridity’: ‘super’ not because it’s superior, but as a reflection of how hybridization has moved beyond the point where it’s about a fixed set of cultural genealogies and instead has turned into a kind of computational aggregate of multiple influences and sources. Gonjasufi – and any contemporary artist similarly devoted to a trans-contextual approach – is neither a mere product of his background nor just another eclecticist; his sources are super-diverse, but are parts of a detailed puzzle forming the larger picture of a life between anger and equanimity, sociability and loneliness, city lights and desert, advanced tech-iness and the deliberately antediluvian. There’s method in this madness. (But is it really that mad?)

The phenomenon of super-hybridity hasn’t come out of the blue. It has been represented for decades in comic-book culture as, say, a powerful, elegant, brilliantly sculpted hero(ine) – or a decomposing monster rising from the swamps. Its more openly polemical – yet fragile – side was pioneered by artists who refused to take any medium, genre or discipline for granted. Mary Shelley, Alfred Jarry, Lina Wertmüller and Sigmar Polke are all super-hybridists avant l’Internet, but the question of what fuelled their methodical restlessness remains. Was it simply an eagerness to mimic capitalism’s restlessness? Yes and no (yes, because they’re fascinated by production; no, because they hate the business). Is it an adult form of child’s play? Yes and no (yes, because playfully testing perception is a part of it; no, because it’s too exhausting and risky for it to be just play).

So there must be more to it. Is super-hybridity driven by a kind of coldly rational conceptuality or, on the contrary, by a deeply moral discontent with the privileges of access and ownership attached to media and disciplines? Adrian Piper’s response would probably be that the answer can’t be either/or. Having recently re-visited her work both as an artist and philosopher, I realized – despite her decision to keep them separate – how complementary her two practices are. The ‘insane’ methodology of her artistic work from the 1960s to the present (taking photos determined by arbitrary time intervals; stuffing a towel in her mouth and riding a bus; programming computer-game-like animations of black and white dots interacting) sits well with her ‘sane’, Kantian enquiry into how rationality secures the self’s internal unity. Because these works involve testing the fringes of that unity, they elicit both rationalizing defense mechanisms in the viewer and the pleasures of intellectual inspiration and perceptual bliss. So if you were wondering whether that shape-shifting raft called super-hybridity is any good, and whether or not it comes equipped with an intellectual and ethical compass, Piper’s practice hints at an answer.

None of the above makes for a clearly distinguishable avant-garde; as long as it doesn’t regress into messy plagiarism trying to pass for magic, this could be its achievement.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.