Accents on the Hyphen: Gwenn-Aël Lynn on Hyrbidity

December 21, 2011 · Print This Article

Work in progress (2009-present) interactive audiolfactory installation investigating creolized scents in Chicago.

Caroline Picard: This series started for me because I kept hearing the word hybridity — in multiple conversations about different art works or practices, hybridity started to sound like a buzzword. While on the one hand, I know what the word means of course, it also feels like a term that carries a certain amount of baggage. I was hoping to try and identify what that baggage was and, even, pin down (if possible) what hybridity means. Perhaps part of its intent is to remain fluid and unpinnable — as a kind of strategy resistant to traditional power structures — at least that seems to be an element that motivates your own work. Can you talk a little bit about more why hybridity is important to you? [As an aside, I'd add that this interview took place several months ago, at the inception of the Occupy Movement)

Gwenn-Aël Lynn: Hybrid is a word originating from the biological sciences. It indicates the cross breeding of different species or plants, often through human manipulation. However I am using it in the manner that Homi Bhabha defined in the 1990s. So, in my case, it is really a cultural term. I'm actually pushing this definition a little further, because what I'm really after is creolization, a term used, in particular, by Edouard Glissant, a Creole speaking Martinican poet, who, sadly, passed away recently. Where Hybridity is the offspring of two entities (in other words it hinges on a binary system), creolization allows for multplicity, a mixture where the different parts remain autonomous, a place of endless permutation. It speaks of a process, of something in constant flux, instead of just two parts synthesized into one. I'm actually looking for an appropriate translation of the French word métissage, and I think it is really interesting that there is no literal equivalent in English. There are many expressions like “mixed-race,” “bi-racial,” etc. but they all result from colonial racial ideologies, and I simply don't believe that these terms are relevant to today's society. Not that we should stop acknowledging “race” in America, but rather if our language is still predicated on colonial racial terms, we'll never move forward. The mere concept of race is very confining. Meanwhile. the global world is mutating. Therefore I settled on creolisation as the closest meaning to métissage, an intercultural process (and cross breeding by the same token), that granted is a by-product of colonialism, but also gave birth to new languages: Creole(s); new religions: Vodoo, Candomble, Santeria; new ways of cooking: Caribean, Reunionese, Mauritian, Brazilian, Mexican, etc. And indeed these cultural phenomena, over a long history, often occurred under complex power structures (whether under the European Colonial expansion, or the various invasions that have shaped modern day India, or even the succession of empires around the Mediterranean basin.)

CP: How does this subject resonate with you?

GAL: I guess I should also specify that I am a hybrid, but not in a racial term, because I have a french mother and an American father (from California) and I grew up between two households, over two continents, speaking two languages. So, I've always had, at least, a dual understanding of the world. In fact, one of the key moments I became aware that I was not simply “French” or “American” occurred while visiting my former in-laws on Reunion Island (A French “Over-Seas department”(1) in the Indian Ocean) where a local journalist asked me if I considered myself a métis [mixed race] because of my dual origins. I hesitated for a little while before answering “yes.” This answer would not be acceptable in a racially structured society like the United States (because I’m actually not the result of miscegenation, however I am culturally mixed), but on this island, where race relations are differently problematic, it was a possible answer, precisely because the Reunionese revel in creolisation. So when confronted with the North American way of dealing with race, creolization gives me a place that I can navigate, and more importantly where I can meet and share with other people, who are not like me, but who also possess this sense of belonging to a multiplicity rather than a single group or community. This creolized place is not only racially or visually motivated; it is linguistic (for people who command more than just English) transgender, and last but not least, political.

CP: It sounds like your understanding of creolization opens up at that point to include other kinds of mixes — like you say, mixes of sexual orientation, or gender etc.

GAL: Yes, I am naturally attracted towards other hybrids, and discourses, and practices, that embody such identity(ies). And, one of the things that have always disturbed me about the United States is that race theory, discourse, and emancipation has become very inward looking; we have all these very different hyphenated Americans (African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and the list is quasi infinite) but this hyphen does not provide any room for those who belong to more than just one ethnic community. And there are many historical reasons to account for these racial divides (like, for instance, the “One-drop rule”)(2), it is a bit like, indeed we are a melting pot, but the content of the pot never melted. However, we tend to forget that the civil rights movement, for example, even though it started in the segregated South by those very people whose liberties had been restricted for so long. The civil rights movement had only been possible, and became successful by uniting across racial divides as “people.” If you look at pictures from those days you see people from all walks of life — there is a majority of Black folks of course, but you also see Jews, Whites, and in parallel you have Cesar Chavez uniting farm workers in California, and the formation of the American Indian Movement. As a matter of fact my father recalls participating in a protest against a segregated Woolworths in Santa Monica, CA, in the late fifties. Angry racist Whites were throwing stones at the protesters. Yet it’s through efforts and sacrifices of this kind that change was enacted. And so, today, I feel that “We Americans,” unlike other cultures that have also felt the yoke of colonialism, like India, Brazil, or Mexico, we do not embrace our creolized nature. And we certainly don’t give space to those who refuse to identify as belonging to a single racial, or cultural, and gender category.

BlackXican Pozole. Performance detail 2011. Gwenn-Aël LYNN and Hermes Santana collaborated to make and serve a pozole dinner in a performative way, emphasizing its olfactory dimension. (see note 6 for details)

 CP: Do you feel like we should try to shed identity altogether?

GAL: Of course not. It is not about: “let’s all mingle and become so homogenous that there is no difference left.” Rather, it is about the possibility of having multiplicity within each of us, and to relate to each other while embracing our differences. I think, but I’m not sure, that this is one possible interpretation of what Antonio Negri calls the “multitude.” So it becomes a multitude of multiplicities, the ferment for new democracy. On a simpler level there is a gastronomic metaphor that, I find, illustrates multiplicity very well:

Our preference, for miscegenation as thought, will go to the soup, for it is respectful of its components leaving them intact in a sober and tolerant broth.3
[From the Dictionnaire du Métissage
by Francois Laplantine and Alexis Nouss,
Paris, Pauvert Editions 2001]

CP: Where does that leave us now? And why do you think people are so interested in hybridity?

GAL: You know, there are moments when, I feel we are where we are, in the middle of the Great Recession, with a Black president, who is actually a “hybrid,” but who campaigned as a “black” candidate (instead of a mixed-race candidate, because of the “One-drop rule” I was speaking of earlier) and decided to show his birth certificate to answer pressure from the Republicans, because it is in the interest of Capitalism to have us divided like this. Divide and Conquer is an old colonial strategy to gain the upper hand. So if the American people is divided along ethnic classes that makes more cheap labour for Capitalism, because we are not going to get together to fight back. It’s easier to blame the Mexican immigrant worker because he is supposedly taking our jobs, or vice-versa to blame the Black worker, or the Unemployed because, as a citizen, he has access to what’s left of the welfare system, medicaid, etc. It’s easier to blame each other for the situation we are in than to reach out, and try to organize each other across divides, to actually take control and decide for our own fate. It’s a lot easier to let a bunch of flunkies on Capitol Hill haggle over the debt ceiling for weeks on end, while it’s getting harder for all of us to put food on our plates. And this goes for artists too, we are workers, we are manual and intellectual workers, but we are divided along medium, schools, hell we are divided along race too! And many of us accept to work very hard practically for free. Some of us even put themselves in debt in the hope of finishing a project because we are at a point where there no longer is any viable support for making art. But who reaps the fruit of this hard labour? The art market. Has it ever invested into an ambitious artistic project? Does Sotheby’s give back to the community when it scores a big sale? Nope! It lets the local art council support as best as can the making of art, and comes afterward to harvest the product without even leaving a dime behind. And yet we all put up with this system, or rather we just witness its passing. There are some in the community who are trying to raise some awareness about this labor division within the art world.

CP: Do you have an example?

GAL: I am thinking of Temporary Services, for example, who released a newspaper last year. There is American for the Arts but they are really more of an Art in Education advocacy group in DC. How about a group who advocates for better “art making conditions,” for the possibility of being a full time artist, rather than an artist with three or four different odd jobs and no time for art making for example? Recently, as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, there has also been Occupy Museum and Occupy Art.In France, some artists are trying to self organize under various headings to fight for more support and better policies, but it is one high steep hill. So, anyways, these are some of the reasons why I make work that addresses questions related to hybridity.

"Kretek," 2006, photograph: Maartin Van Loosbroek (see note 7 for details)

CP: How has this stuff influenced your own practice?

GAL: In terms of art projects, well there is this interactive Audiolfactory (4) installation I started working on in 2009, and for which I was awarded a CAAP grant dy the DCA of Chicago, but it’s unfortunately still in progress (I say unfortunate because I had originally planned on wrapping it in one year!).

CP: Doesn’t your work incorporate smell?

GAL: I started by engaging in conversation with other hybrids about their understanding of creolization and I asked them to relate their experience to smells, in order to garner scents that could be described as “Hybrid” (again not in a chemical or biological sense, but rather as associated to a hybrid experience). In order to meet my interviewees I relied on ads placed on the CAR website, on Facebook, on fliers placed in key coffee houses, and on cultural centers such as the American Indian Center on Wilson avenue, the Center on Halsted, the Korean American Center, The Tibetan Cultural Center in Evanston, the Asian American Museum in Chinatown, the Japanese American Historical Society, as well as word to mouth communication. Methodologically I did not rely only on conversation (in other words on language) to determine what these smells could be, I also conducted a performative scent workshop to see if the “performative body” would suggest other scents, in which Sebastian Alvarez participated. This workshop actually led to other scents, but the unforeseen issue is that it has now grown into a performance workshop that I have been asked to conduct in several places (including Lithuania) with no particular connection to hybridity. Anyways, after all these smells were suggested, I then collaborated with two perfumers : Michel Roudnitska (based in the South of France), and Christophe Laudamiel (based in New York) to reproduce these scents. I am not disclosing what they are yet, because I want the experience to be fresh and unmediated when this installation opens to the public (no set dates yet), but some of them are really surprising and interesting.

CP: Does the piece focus solely on smell?

GAL: Sounds will be associated to each scent station, and for this section of the project I am collaborating with an experimental DJ: Christophe Gilmore aka FluiD, who is originally from Los Angeles, but is now based in Chicago, and is actually Creole. Some of the comments and observations that were made by the various hybrids I engaged with will also find their ways into these sound samples, but I have to work that out with them, making sure they agree with the edits, get their permission etc. But these abstracts will greatly complexify the definition of creolization I gave earlier.

CP: It sounds like your understanding of this terminology, and your investigation of that terminology, changes depending on who you work with.

GAL: One of the great things about working with people (rather than alone or “in the name of”) is that it really gives you a plurality of meanings, and forces definitions to be very fluid and transient, but it is also hard because you have to make sure nobody is left behind or frustrated by the process. All of the participants to the project get credited in the end, but that’s a few months away. Each sound/smell station will be in the form of rice paper maché sculptures (mostly because I need material that at the same time contains but let smells and sounds ooze through) in the shape of noses and ears, so as you can see the hybrid nature of this installation really resides in its scents and sounds and not so much in its visual aspect. And that’s a deliberate choice, because it is the eyesight that makes us see race (skin surface level). Whereas it is not so present (but not completely absent either) in our aural and olfactory phenomenology. As Stuart Hall once said: “race enters the visual field.” There is actually a number of texts on visual hegemony and how this differs when it comes down to olfaction, but that discussion would take many more pages. But in a few words I can say that I’m addressing the question of creolization through smells to open up a new territory, not to be charted visually, but to practice rhizomatic studies to sense how identities, formed out of multiplicity, can get together and generate new sensibilities, new relations and hopefully new knowledge in how we can form inter-related and diverse groups of human beings.

(see note 5 for video details)

CP: Has your relationship with your various participants changed over the course of this project?

GAL: While working on the above mentioned project, my former roommate moved out, so I placed an ad on Craigslist to find a new one, and one of the respondents happened to be someone I had initially interviewed for the project. So he moved in, and we are getting along well. As the project has been taking so long to complete I have been hosting “hybrid dinners” at my house once a year to keep in touch with my fellow hybrids but also to let them know I am still working on the installation, and to continue our conversations. For one of these dinners, Hermes (that’s my roommate) decided to make a Black-Xican Pozole (as you may have guessed he is Black and Mexican, and a fantabulous professional chef). It’s a pozole made the Mexican way, but it also incorporates elements of soul food like collard greens, and ham hock. Shortly thereafter I was invited, by Alberto Aguilar and Jorge Lucero, to contribute to a show they were curating: Hecho en Casa, a program of events that verged on acts of domesticity. So Hermes and I decided to turn the dinner into a public performance.

Finally as a last example, I could mention a previous interactive odour and sound installation (2006) which, when I made it I did not think of in terms of hybridity, but looking back I think it would qualify, even though, at that time, I did not have the theoretical baggage, let alone the drive, to conceive of it as a hybrid project. It’s an installation that I made while being an artist in residence in the Netherlands, in Enschede, close to the German border, via the European Pepinieres for Young Artists network, Transartists and the media department of the AKI. I wanted to address the fact that in current European discourse, and in particular in the Netherlands, despite years of immigrant labor and influx from the former colonies, identity is still defined from the center, the White Dutch majority. For instance, the Dutch government passed a law, a few years ago, that forces new immigrants to be fluent in Dutch. Yet there are plenty of Dutch citizens who are from the former colonies, and speak other languages. From my perspective this definition is very problematic, so in order to come up with a postcolonial definition of the contemporary Netherlands I met and engaged with Dutch nationals who had some kind of affiliation with the former colonies. As expected I met many different kinds of people, some with very traumatic histories, because independence was not a peaceful process, others because when they came to the mainland they had to deal with blatant racism. Some of these questions and stories were integrated, along with music composed by Antony Maubert, into the sound part of this installation, and others (I had a lot of data) were indexed on an audio CD that was released with the opening of the show in Enschede. And as an answer to the push for monolinguism by the authorities, the soundtracks of this project total 8 languages (Afrikaan, Bahassa, Balinese, Dutch, English, Papiamento, Taki-Taki, and Zulu). Indeed, Dutch is not the only language spoken today in the Netherlands. So it is by no means exhaustive, but instead reflect the people I met, while in residence. This project was my initial collaboration with Michel Roudnistka for the smells. Looking back at that project, I tried to manifest ideas of creolization by using a non-dialectical structure. A sensory experience organized by associations in order to foster connections and expand ideas of communities, language, identities, etc.

floor plan of the interactive odour and sound installation at De Overslag, Eindhoven, 2007.

But regarding hybridity specifically in regard to this installation from 2006, I think my most interesting find was that when Indonesia was occupied by the Dutch there were Indos who used the following expressions to describe their ancestry: the Motherland was Indonesia, and Fatherland described the Netherlands, because often, Indos were the children of a Dutch male civil servant who had married an Indonesian woman. This example was narrated by Johan Ghysels (an Indo photographer from Enschede) on the soundtrack associated to the odor of Kretek (clove cigarettes). In his words “we were the in-between layer” of Dutch colonial society, between the white elite and the Indonesian natives, rejected by the latter because more privileged, and despised by the former for not being “completely” Dutch. As a matter of fact, many of the people I talked to, in the course of this project, described themselves as “in-between”. When independence struck, many of the Indos had to leave for fear of being exterminated by Indonesian Nationalists who identified them with the oppressors. So they sought refuge in the Netherlands where they had some relatives but once there, as Gill Bollegraf, another Indo photographer from Enschede, told me, they were confronted by really strange behavior. An incident happened to her mother (Gil was born in the Netherlands): one day at the market, after her arrival in the Netherlands in the sixties, a little White Dutch kid lifted her skirt to see if she had a tail, because he thought she was a monkey. So a few Indos went to California to start a new life but the majority of them, nevertheless, stayed in the Netherlands. Today they have organized themselves into different associations (, they have their own music, food, etc. It is a striving culture, but always remains at their core, this sense of having been forcibly displaced.


(1) Read: former colony, whose inhabitants decided to remain within the French République when the colonial empire broke down in the 60′s and 70′s. It boasts one of the most creolized population in the world.
(2) Meaning any person with “one drop of black blood” was considered as black under the Racial Integrity Act, despite the fact that many were mixed-race people.
(3) This quote is my rough translation of the following text, and operates a distinction between two kinds of soups: the potage -which is a soup where all the ingredients have been grinded and blended and a soupe where all the ingredients are left as they are, floating in their broth: “Notre préférence, nonobstant nos penchants gastronomiques et leurs goûts respectifs, ira, pour une pensée du métissage, à la soupe. Car elle est respectueuse de ses composantes qu’elle laisse intactes dans un bouillon sobre et tolérant. Le potage, lui, broie, mélange, passe, bref il fusionne, visant à l’homogène.”
(4)Sound and smell

(5) Roots… (a speaking garden) 2010. Installation made while in residence at the Pépinières Européennes pour Jeunes Artistes in St. Cloud, France. A sound enhanced winter garden. Foreigners, and nationals with experience abroad, recommended the plants constituting this installation. While in residence, I met with them and conducted interviews discussing the metaphor of roots, as pertaining to one’s origins. During the exhibition, abstracts from these interviews were triggered by the visitors, whose displacements were monitored by discrete c-mos cameras and a computer where these displacements were analyzed by two open source software: Processing and Pure Data. Pure Data patch built by Ben Carney.
(6) This dinner took place at Cobalt Studios, located in Pilsen, and was sonified with a “Pilsen” soundscape. It was part of a series of event: Hecho en Case/Home made curated by Alberto Aguilar and Jorge Lucero. A program of events that verged on acts of domesticity.
(7) interactive odour and sound installation (2006). Detail of kretek diffuser (clove and tobacco). Scents, sounds, electronics, infra-red motion detector, MIDI box (an open source interface), software, computer. This project was realized while in residence in Enschede, the Netherlands, via the European exchange program for young artists: “European pépinières [nursery] for young artists”. Collaborators: Paul Jansen Klomp (new media artist), Antony Maubert (composer), and Michel Roudnitska. (perfumer).
This installation has been shown in Enschede at Villa deBank in April 2006, in Eindhoven at De Overslag in March 2007, and at Casino Luxembourg, Forum for Contemporary Art, Luxembourg in September 2007.