Renzo Martens and the Institute for Human Activities

Date posted: December 12, 2013
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Dutch artist Renzo Martens lives and works in Brussels and Kinshasa and is known for his satirical and disturbing video documentaries in which he travels to war-torn countries and places himself narcissistically at the centre of the action, demonstrating how Western spectators consume distant trauma. In 2012, Martens helped found the Institute for Human Activities and initiated its five-year Gentrification Program. By means of strategic inversion Martens comments on the ways in which Western media depict the non-Western world.

In his first film ‘Episode 1’ the artist infiltrates, alone and with a small amateur camera, the Chechen borders, where he visits refugee camps, UN headquarters and the bombed city of Grozny. As Western audience we are accustomed to view these images of war and conflict in daily news broadcasts and TV programs. However, in contrast to our expectations, Martens is not so much interested in the people’s sorrow, rather in himself and his personal love story. Instead of asking the refugee’s how they are feeling, he asks them: ‘what do you think of me?’ And: ‘do you think I am free?’

In ‘Episode 3’ Martens travels to the ruined Congo, interviewing photographers, plantation owners and locals; he acts the role of journalist, colonist, modern day missionary and development aid worker. His film focuses on one observation: poverty is Africa’s biggest export product, and, as with other natural resources of the Congo, it is exploited by the West through media. Lecturing locals assertively on ideas of poverty as commodity, he encourages them to sell their own photographs of starvation and death, not let Western photojournalists profit from their humanitarian disaster.

Artes Mundi Artist Films Renzo Martens and The Institute for Human Activities. from Artes Mundi on Vimeo.