Humboldt Forum

A place to be curious

The Humboldt Forum opened its doors to the public for a weekend to mark Alexander von Humboldt's 250th birthday. A party where artists from South America took the lead.

The Humboldt Forum is still a work in progress. Not only because while the Berlin City Palace may now have a spruce facade, it is still unfinished inside, some of it unplastered and bare – but also because the debate about the school of thought to be pursued here is far from over. How can the Humboldt Forum convey a global outlook that embraces diversity? How can critical postcolonial perspectives on its own European history be integrated? These questions still fill the air in this space with its high baroque windows.

 

On the occasion of a ceremony marking Alexander von Humboldt's 250th birthday – celebrated in cooperation with the Goethe Institute under the headline "250 years young!" – the large building in Berlin's Mitte district opened its doors for a weekend.

A taste of what Forum director Hartmut Dorgerloh calls the "responsibility" associated with Humboldt's name: "Learning from people from other cultural contexts and getting to the root of things," being critical of power structures and making the connection between the distant and the close at hand. 

Indigenous perspectives

The programme for the festivities certainly sought actively to break with the Eurocentric perspective. In addition to presentations (among others by Humboldt expert Andrea Wulf), a live video debate between Berlin, Bogotá and Novosibirsk, and DJ sets each night, the event centred on the works prompted by the Goethe Institute as part of its year on the theme of "Humboldt y las Américas". These included the exhibition curated by Halim Badawi on "The nature of things: Humboldt, coming and going", focusing on topics like the ruthless exploitation of South America's natural resources and the history of slavery.

Above all, however, the event was a space for the indigenous perspectives. Not only with a projection on the eastern facade showing the Amazonian night sky from the perspective of the scientists who live there, but also with a series of remarkable installations, 360° films and virtual and augmented reality projects combining centuries-old traditions with modern technologies.

Mental journeys

"Humboldt did not discover the South American continent," the Colombian filmmaker and artist Diana Rico is quick to point out. "Everything was there already, before his arrival; there was an indigenous body of knowledge about nature, which he studied." Rico presented two works inviting visitors to retrace Humboldt's journeys – but this time from the perspective of the original inhabitants. In the 360° film "Kají (Sacred Coca)", which she created together with Richard Décaillet, viewers don VR glasses to immerse themselves in the daily life of the jaguar shamans of Yuruparí on the Pira Paraná River in the Colombian region of Vaupés.

The technically brilliant film draws the viewer in, taking them on elegiac trips along the Amazon or into the huts of the shamans saying prayers over the coca leaf. They believe that "the coca and tobacco plants enable people to embark on mental journeys", Rico explains.

Virtual rituals

The second work she presented in Berlin is titled "Juyeko Humboldt". It was created during a hackathon in June 2019 hosted by the Goethe Institute and involving some 100 creatives, VR developers and Humboldt enthusiasts in Bogotá, Lima and Mexico City.

At the centre of "Juyeko Humboldt" is a maloca – an indigenous community house in the Amazon region. Each stake of this maloca "represents a special place", explains Juan Pablo Calderon from the team of developers. But instead of the geographical coordinates we're used to, he says, they reveal an indigenous cartography: "The waterfall south of here; the tree in the north, where the jaguar lives."

Markings on the floor and walls of the hut function as codes for augmented reality clips that can be experienced with a smartphone and headset. They show places visited by Humboldt like the Orinoco and Guajira, but leave their description to the indigenous people. Other films introduce ritual dances from the region in the form of tutorials.

Alexander VR Humboldt

Another remarkable project is "Alexander VR Humboldt" by a young team of developers from Mexico. Once again, VR glasses immerse visitors in an interactive game – in the footsteps of Humboldt, whose Mexico journey led from Acapulco to Mexico City. In the virtual world, visitors assemble measuring instruments that the scientist carried with him on his travels, such as a sextant or an altitude gauge. Or categorise plants that Humboldt studied in Mexico: the floripondio – the mimosa.

 

"Humboldt was an adventurer, he wanted to look beyond his own backyard, that makes quite an impression on me", says 3D artist David Campuzano Gómez from the Mexican team. "And this curiosity about other worlds is also what motivates us when we play video games."


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