“History is Full of Fiction:” In conversation with Nadia Kaabi-Linke and Timo Kaabi-Linke
By Jess Chen
Writing about the collapse of the bourgeoisie, Walter Benjamin remarked that material residue preserves a kind of dream-world, an image of the future. “Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams about the one to follow, but in dreaming, precipitates its awakening.” Nadia Kaabi-Linke is a collector and archaeologist of such residue, the traces of what has been and what could be. She excavates the everyday by retrieving detritus; coffee grounds, scrap metal, paint chips, and even dust become source material for her work. That which has been overlooked, or deemed waste, constitute the means through which Kaabi-Linke dismantles the clean narrative arc. Capitalism, war, colonialism, domestic abuse—these are her subjects, storylines defined by their destruction, tragic irony, and ultimately, regret. Kaabi-Linke composes extended metaphors of longing and deferred hope from these ruins.
Kaabi-Linke’s own trajectory began in Tunisia, where she studied painting at the University of Fine Arts, Tunis, before moving to Paris to complete a Ph.D. in Art Theory at the Sorbonne. Kaabi-Linke now lives and works in Berlin with her partner and collaborator Timo, a sociologist. They also spend time in Kyiv, Ukraine, her mother’s hometown. It comes as no surprise that Kaabi-Linke is a keen observer of how history and geography color personal experience. She probes the miasma of fear and greed that marks history in her latest work, Das Kapital—Epilogue: The Fable of the End of An Era, a scathing critique of our economic system.
Das Kapital, on view at Darat al Funun, is a video installation with several found objects: a metal gate propped upright by a pile of tawny, unpolished stones and a weathered electric cable. The objects come from Amman, Jordan, where Nadia and Timo noticed a plot of land between two townhouses, empty except for the gate, stones, and cable. After conducting interviews with nearby residents, which became part of the installation, they learned that there used to be a house on the land. Its owner had a dream in which her father said there was treasure buried underneath the house. She went to work accordingly, evicting the tenants and destroying the building, but she found nothing.
Das Kapital is a potent metaphor for the corrosive desires of capitalism. The work is more relevant than ever today when the COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted hundreds of thousands of people into financial precarity, even as large corporations continue to profit. In my interview with Nadia and Timo, we discuss the implications of Das Kapital, their approach to revealing history’s fictions, and how we might imagine a post-capitalist society.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Jess Chen (JC): I was captivated by the way in which mythology or fiction figures in the work: first in the backstory, in which the landlord follows a dream, and in your subtitle, Fable of the End of an Era. But these fictions have had concrete consequences on real people, places, and things, and these consequences can turn into historical fact. How do you interpret this relationship between fiction and history?
Nadia Kaabi-Linke (NKL): Actually, I always thought there is little place for fiction in the way we [her and Timo] deal with history. But history is full of fiction, that being said, because there is always narrative. There is no historical fact. Historians work with theories and histories of books, which give us narratives. Depending upon which regime you live in, which time you live in, I learned to understand that fiction is really part of history.
But our approach as artists tries to avoid that. We work with prints, we work with direct contact with people and take pieces and bits of life. [We] compose objects and create a grammar of things. In the case of “Das Kapital,” we say it is an urban legend. You can say a dream is fiction, but it’s a concrete dream she has had.
It depends on the culture where you live also. For some people, dreams are communications with the spirits or the universe. This [Das Kapital] is an example of a lady who took the dream as reality, so she believed it completely.
Timo Kaabi-Linke (TKL): Your question is very sociological, as I understand it. In sociology, you have two histories: the history that is operated within and followed by a rationalist regime, which is relating facts and archives and documents, and doing a reflection of your own interpretation of these documents. Through source analysis, you try to get objectivity in your research.
On the other hand, as you try to be objective, you must consider yourself as a subject in this history—as something that was created and made by this process. You need to question all your methods, so this objectivity resides in the fact that you need to look at history that has an effect on people and social life. I’m not talking about the history created from the archives, I’m talking about the lived history and the oral histories, like urban legends. We must say that the subjective part of history, which is composed of many, many individual stories is much more effective than anything you can prove on paper.
JC: There are always those gaps in the archive you can never fully fill.
TKL: When we come to Das Kapital, the fact that they changed the law to rebuild and reconstruct the city was less important to the woman than the dream she had, and she relied on this dream more than the printed law sent by the government.
NKL: When you listen to the video, to all the interviews we made, there is always the same story with deviations. I see it as a kind of aural sculpture because it’s as if through the voice of the people you are turning around the situation and it becomes three-dimensional. Some of them say it is a woman, but several say it’s not a woman. They are an extremely rich family, and this is one of the houses they have in Amman. Most of them live in foreign countries, and some say the dream came to a sister [who didn’t live in Amman], and she consulted with all of her family members and decided that they would do this [find the treasure]. Because they are a rich family, they blocked the street from one end to the other. The army was involved to protect the whole process.
TKL: The government involved itself in order to avoid public upheaval, because they feared that people would all claim the fortune.
NKL: It makes total sense why the army and government would be so much involved. This neighborhood was not very rich, but it was in the most historical part of Amman. The treasures are not their [the landlord’s] ancestors.’ [It’s] something maybe 800 years old, or more, so they don’t have the right to it. If there was something, it doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to Jordan.
JC: Going back to taking these bits and pieces of reality for your work, how do you avoid reproducing those fictions or myths?
TKL: We work a lot with reproductions, but when you reproduce, when Nadia takes prints from walls, she’s in direct contact. Not reproduction but a transfer of a texture. The print cannot exist without the original and is not identical to the original, because it is a pattern, while the original is an object. This is a critical approach to the idea of reproduction.
When you put the different stories with slight deviations together, you realize how this is constructed, and you see that there is a common myth that everyone makes something out of.
In this work, we reproduced the gate and took original elements from the site to rearrange them in the exhibition space. This was not a transfer—it was a transposition. We wanted to cut it out of the original environment and put it in the clinical environment of the exhibition venue, a kind of petri dish. When you put it in a different place, where it doesn’t belong, then it becomes visible.
We did the same thing with the recordings. When you put the different stories with slight deviations together, you realize how this is constructed, and you see that there is a common myth that everyone makes something out of. When you align these stories, you become aware that this is all construction.
NKL: I would say that we don’t try to avoid reproduction—we work with it. We work with prints and imprints, and in this case, we didn’t want to touch the gate. We made a re-enactment and reproduced the whole thing. When you asked your question, it made me think of Urinal by Duchamp, although it’s not my favorite work. You take an object and reproduce it as it is. No one looked at it before. But when you take it out of its context and you put it within the white cube, you look at it with new eyes.
JC: I was going to ask about the Duchamp, actually. The found object.
NKL: Yeah, Duchamp is not the best example because there are very strong theories…it’s very possible the first readymade was produced by a woman. Another patriarchal myth.
TKL: Still, once you do something with pre-existing elements, you don’t try to ignore or invisibilize or overlook the fact that you work with reproductions. Put it on the table. Think about it and ask the questions: How can I make this reproducibility visible? How can I work with it in a way that the reproduction is so strong that nobody would dare to think, “Wow, this is original.” That kind of originality in art is a big myth of modern art.
JC: I’m interested specifically in the reproduction of narrative. You mentioned those recordings in the video installation of different people retelling the urban legend. How do you avoid one master narrative coming out? Is that a concern of yours?
NKL: There is one story, so the only variations are slight. Some say it’s only the woman, some others say it’s her and especially her brothers and sisters who took over and she [the woman] doesn’t even live in Amman. There was a big question about the gate. Who built it? Is it the gate from the house? Some say yes, some say no. There was a homeless man who came and collected it. Some said he cared for it, some said he was crazy or had a mental illness.
But the line is clearly the dream, the gold, the treasure, destruction, and losing everything.
The core idea, why we called it Capital and Epilogue, is because the gate should separate the outer and inner space and protect the inner space. But it’s not holding itself. It’s being held by stones, by an electric cable, and by a branch, so everything is super precarious. We saw in this gate the metaphor for the post-capitalist era.
I have a feeling that the coronavirus has pushed us toward something. And nevertheless, all the governments in the world, instead of questioning everything and asking how to save us, hold onto a system that is built on blood and destroying the planet. Total nonsense—the gate is nonsense [too]. It’s not holding itself, it’s the cable and some stones holding it. That’s why the narrative, the story is important. It’s like a skeleton.
TKL: I was thinking about the guy who lives in this area. He created some kind of a poetic plot because he’s actually at the other end of the social scale. He’s homeless, he has nothing, but he got a place where he could be at night, where he could leave his things during the day. This is huge for someone who has nothing. So there was a treasure in the ground.
The funny thing is that he decorated this place in the typical capitalist fashion. “This is mine—here’s a fence—don’t go further—this is now my place.” He appropriated it. He should be the guy explaining to us why capitalism isn’t working.
JC: That reminds me of salvage capitalism. Being on the edges of capitalism and making a place for yourself.
TKL: Yes. As Nadia said, the beginning of capitalism was always bloody, in all societies, and it was not so long ago. Especially if you look at the United States, you can go a few generations back and find the guy who draws the fence.
In Europe, it’s a bit more complicated. We have the feudal system that intervenes, but it’s the same logic, all about property. The point is capitalism is something like a dead-born child. It could never live, it could never really work. This is how it can deal with problems and crises. People are saying this is late capitalism and the end of the capitalism. I think that crisis is all capitalism needs.
JC: Thinking about Das Kapital, the first thing that came to my mind was that quote attributed to Fredric Jameson, that “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
TKL: In my sense, this has become so outdated. This is something you would think of with Francis Fukuyama, the end of history.
JC: And yet so many people still have this mindset.
NKL: Some take it as a system like weather, or conditions like water or air. No, it’s not that. It’s not vital.
JC: I have one last question. We’re talking about the destruction of capitalism and how coronavirus is pushing capitalism even faster so that systems are at the brink. If we get to the point where we decide we have to build a new system, what are you imagining and what kind of structuring principle(s) are you imagining for the future?
TKL: It’s quite difficult to fathom the possibilities of the future so I won’t do that. But what I could do and what triggers my interest is what already exists. It’s incredible how reflective people have become about money. Modern Money Theory (MMT) creates public awareness that money doesn’t exist. It’s not a substantive medium. When you take money from a bank, it’s not that there’s less money when you take it. No, they give the debt that the bank has for you to someone else to deal with it. Everything that we exchange is not money. It is not like gold that is sold and someone else is now the new owner. It’s a program of behavior. These discourses would bring so much awareness to this. If people start thinking this way, society would totally change the idea of property and come to a culture of sharing and caring.
NKL: This is for me also. Sharing and caring, that’s for me a dream, and I think we can reach it. People think it is in the nature of humans to be greedy, to accumulate. It is as much in human nature, when someone smiles at you, to feel a second of incredible happiness, and we need that. That’s why all the films and songs are always about love, because this what we need and that’s what anchors us. I don’t want to be romantic here. Love for me is something very concrete, very real, tangible, that I experience every day. Even when I’m angry, there is a part of love in it also.
It is as Timo said, sharing and caring. It is the opposite of capitalism.
Das Kapital is a timely exploration of the consequences of capitalism. The work’s strength, however, lies in how it beckons to the future using the ruin as artistic strategy. Ruins are evidence of both fragility and destruction, of human life and of marginalized histories. My conversation with Nadia and Timo shows how they can also serve as a starting point for imagining a more equitable system. Nadia’s work is on view at Aicon Gallery, New York, from March 3—April 17.
 Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press), 13.