Interview with Mo Salemy

by Stella Hsu

Nature, Knowledge and the Knower

How does the title Nature, Knowledge and the Knower correlate with the exhibition and, more specifically, with history? What do you mean by the term the knower?

In their coauthored book, Objectivity, Lorraine Datson and Peter Galison establish a relationship between nature and knowledge that is mediated by the artist and/or the scientist as the knower. The knower is the one who sees and ultimately knows nature and whose abilities are measured by what s/he already knows. Through these acts, the knower not only arrives at knowing but contributes to new ways of seeing and knowing. These new conditions, as they put it, should not only be seen as obstacles to objectivity or truth but as their very condition. It is in the figure of the knower that the objective world and the subjective opinion about that world find a two-way mediation.

What is the significance of the Water Hole Group image that appears several times (in different forms) in the exhibition?

The Water Hole image is significant because it depicts the vastest of all landscapes among the African hall dioramas. It successfully provides the visitors with multiple horizons with which they can conjure up an image of Africa. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest dioramas ever made. It is also one of the dioramas that has represented the Museum of Natural History in New York and the Hall within it by appearing repeatedly in different forms in the American imagination about nature and Africa. I also think it is a significant museum display because it includes several species of animals in armature/
taxidermy form as well as in painting. In Carl Akeley’s own words, this diorama “can stand for the whole of Africa.”

The etymology of the term “diorama” comes from the Greek term “through that which is seen.” How does this notion manifest in the present exhibition?

What I like to stress in an exhibition of habitat dioramas is not just the act or the experience of seeing. In such a space the initial act of seeing leads us to a more holistic experience beyond mere seeing: an experience that is phenomenal and experiential. To me, dioramas are much like other forms of modern spectacle technology that generate a form of visuality that goes beyond a mere image, because they blend into the actual world.

How does one approach history through the figure of the knower? Is this figure established through privilege?

In the context of a particular historical knowledge, the relationship is between history as second nature, and the knower as historian. The privilege of the knower in this scenario often stems from the fact that the historian enters his/her field of inquiry with preconceived notions and hypotheses to be proven or disproven. Like Galison and Datson, I approached the relationship between nature, knowledge and the knower beyond the politics of ideology. The point about the knower is not that s/he is privileged or not, but that regardless of privilege, the knower’s access to nature is always mediated by knowledge. Unlike ideology that is often used by a powerful class to prevent other classes from arriving at critical reflections about the nature of social power, theories of knowledge are beyond politics and tend to equally influence all disciplines and social classes at a particular moment of history.

What were some of the difficulties you faced when sorting through the (visual) archives of James L. Clark to prepare for this show?

The only difficulty I experienced was the cumbersome work of archiving and cataloguing, which included remaining consistent with the names of people, geographical places and species. Archival methods are hard to follow and proper archiving takes a long time, but as you do the work you know this would all pay off when the users begin to look things up. This is definitely a case of quality versus quantity, as a well-put-together archive often has to include fewer items to be thorough and proper.

Has the process of curating this exhibition triggered an experience that is beyond mere seeing for you? If so, how have you been transformed?

The most amazing moments were those in which I was submerged so deeply in the archival data that it felt like actually being transported to that particular time and place to which the archive belonged. Most administrative files are organized chronologically in a folder, so I would follow an issue from its inception all the way to its resolution, reading letter after letter about all aspects of an issue. Because of the extensive access I had to the material relating to the construction of dioramas at the Museum, it was easy to find myself—as opposed to getting lost—in the material.

In context of the exhibition, how have you participated in the act of measurement—i.e., forms of measurement: numbers, text, photographic data, line-shape-form, direct sample—as described in your curatorial essay?  

I feel that the world of Internet itself is a new measurement system. It is one through which all other forms and systems of measurement become overlapped, a system that allows for the interaction between ever opposing systems of measurement. I tried to remain aware of this fact and remind myself at every step of the project that I am, in my own way, re-measuring the habitat dioramas at the Museum. I also had to remind myself that before any re-measuring can take place, one has to de-measure the object of analysis and de-familiarize oneself with the surrounding facts. My approach to the archive was a direct sample kind of measurement. This was achieved by naming my systems of measurement, which allowed the material in the archive to be re-categorized in order to relate to my project. I tried to provide as large a scan possible for all of the items, so that the users can get a intimate view of the files and be able to examine them up close.

Another way that I participated in the act of measurement was to write a piece of text for each item included in the online exhibition. The texts are short and to the point. In writing them I avoided having a subjective opinion and tried my best to remain neutral and only explain the material properties of each item as they appear. I felt that this description will best leave a mark on each item in terms of being curatorially measured.

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View the online component of Nature Knowledge and the Knower at www.natureknowledgeknower.com

The exhibition closes on January 14, 2012.

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