Import/Export Funk Office is a 1992 installation by Renée Green that hinged on her friendship with the German cultural theorist Diedrich Diederichsen, who was then editor of the German music magazine Spex. First presented in Cologne in 1992 and, subsequently, as part of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, as well as at MOCA Los Angeles later that same year, the work interprets Diederichsen’s personal collection of objects relating to African and African American diasporic culture – from blues and jazz to philosophy and hip hop – as well as Green’s music, books and magazines. Import/Export Funk Office can be seen as an early critical commentary on appropriation in the context of black and German culture – or as a generative, cross-cultural connection between a US artist and a German theorist.
Diedrich Diederichsen When Import/Export Funk Office was shown for the first time, I remember that the show’s invitation had an image of Angela Davis with Theodor Adorno. Adorno was an exile in the US, having had to escape Germany.
Renée Green Yes, and Davis had likewise been a fugitive; she was later imprisoned, in the 1970s, for her involvement with the Soledad Brothers. When speaking with German friends in the 1990s, I heard about ‘Free Angela’ posters being circulated in East and West Germany. Even today, few people know about Davis’s relationship to Adorno, with whom she studied in Frankfurt, or to Herbert Marcuse, her teacher at Brandeis University. Davis was a professor of philosophy at UCLA; I admire how she was (and still is) not solely an academic but a public intellectual and activist.
DD When we were in Los Angeles in 1992, we thought it’d be interesting to film the homes of German and Austrian exiles, some of whom were Frankfurt School critical theorists: Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Arnold Schönberg. Rodney King’s trial was all over the news when we were driving around and having conversations in the car. We discovered that, when you go north on Bundy Drive in Brentwood, Los Angeles – where the O. J. Simpson murders happened – the street changes its name to South Kenter Avenue, which is where Adorno lived as an exile during the 1940s.
RG How do you remember Import/Export Funk Office starting?
DD It started in 1991 or ’92 – just after German unification and the immense changes that resulted. Art and activism were experiencing something described later as a ‘repoliticization’. It was an important time in hip hop, too, with the ‘conscious’ hip hop of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet  as well as the debut albums of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest (the Native Tongues collective) and KRS-One.
RG In the US context, there were also developments such as the introduction of the term ‘multicultural’. The Yardbird Reader [1972–ongoing], for instance, was a predecessor, publishing writings from Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Jayne Cortez, Leslie Marmon Silko, Ishmael Reed and others; the Multicultural Literacy volume, published by the Graywolf Annual Five in 1988, and The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology from 1992 were also key.
For me, the background to this piece also included the urban environment in New York, where I lived in the 1970s and ’80s: on the subway you heard beats, people were gathering and you could see breakdancing and boom boxes. When the Berlin Wall came down, I went to Artists Space in New York to watch what was going on in Berlin: it was a moment of much exchange. Later, I went to Cologne to work on an exhibition at Galerie Christian Nagel.
DD You were staying at my apartment there while I was away. We hardly knew each other but, from my books and records, you deduced that I was researching African American history, culture, literature and music: the history of the blues, the Civil Rights movement, the Great Migration, Houston A. Baker, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michele Wallace, alongside free jazz and hip hop.
RG Your books, albums and CDs resonated with my own interests in African diasporic cultures and their circulation – writers such as George Lipsitz, Greg Tate and Joe Wood, creators like Andrea Clarke and Arthur Jafa, as well as hip-hop producers, MCs and DJs. For Import/Export Funk Office, I was with them in their spaces, recording our conversations in bars and clubs. This was something not instigated by funding or money but by the love of art, ideas and music: a curiosity about living and circulating and wanting to meet different people.
DD When the work was shown in Germany, it was still unusual to present an audio-visual archive in an art context. But some people, like my colleagues at Spex, saw the piece as an expression of the vast dimensions of knowledge – a sublime, endless collection of items that could be known. At the time, there were maybe only a hundred other people in the world also researching these intersections of critical theory, hip hop and the history of bohemianism. Today, far more do so. This has some positive aspects – more knowledge, debate and people involved. On the other hand, humanities departments – which have increased in number – have, for the most part, less and less money. These connections thus become property of particular research milieus as well as identitarian relations. They turn territorial.
RG But Import/Export Funk Office involves many voices. The ‘Funk’ in its title has a double meaning. In German, it means Funk – i.e. ‘radio broadcast’. But then, of course, it also means ‘funk’ music – import and export. At the time, it felt new to put an ‘office’ in a museum setting. That’s a little of the humour involved, alongside broader notions of capital and trade, as well as much older debates.
DD Import/Export Funk Office was a process: people were inhabiting a large discursive space; everyone was listening to one another. I remember discussing with you the reception in Europe of writers like James Baldwin, who was important in 1970s Germany. We used one of our conversations as an introduction to Yo Hermeneutics! Black Cultural Criticism: Pop, Media, Feminism (1993), my collection of African diasporic theory in German, with texts by Angela Davis, bell hooks, Greg Tate and Cornel West. As an illustration, I used a picture of Import/Export Funk Office. Someone wrote: ‘Your “native informant” Diedrich Diederichsen acts as the European source, but he speaks to you about the culture that you yourself come from.’ I don’t know whether today’s regulations of who is allowed to speak for whom and about what – which sometimes do make sense against power asymmetries – would have ruined our ping pong. But, in general, I would argue that regulations of discourse should only take place if they contribute to an increase in the number of voices involved. Such recognizable diversity and plurality would be the opposite of nameless trolling and it could work as a viable criterion to distinguish between censorship and anti-hegemonic discursive politics.
RG Around 1992, a number of things happened for ‘the first time’: curators were attempting to show artists representing approaches that had never previously been included. That was a big deal: try to conceive of another historical moment in which there was contestation about people who were of colour, or gay, being included in an exhibition.
Import/Export Funk Office was first presented in the US as part of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which was coined by some a ‘multi-culti’ biennial: a reductive labelling that attempted to rein in the shifts and experiments happening at the time. This was a disturbing experience. At the opening, I was verbally attacked by an artist who couldn’t understand why this work would even be in the museum. The exhibition was a fraught moment in terms of its particular reception – not just for the inclusion of artists from a variety of backgrounds but, in the case of Import/Export Funk Office and other works, for the resurgence of an expanded, repoliticized and activist conceptualism. A backlashed conservative reaction was being unleashed at that moment, manifested in the following biennial: a return to order, of sorts.
DD In the ‘appropriation art’ of Sherrie Levine or Sturtevant, appropriation was a subversive strategy, the Marxian ‘expropriation of the expropriators’. It was not the powerful taking away of cultural objects from those who had less power; property belonged to the powerful. The term has completely changed in meaning compared to its current definition. And there is a long history of debates about what it currently means under different names: just think of white blues-rock, white hip hop and so on: your friend Greg [Tate] edited a great book about this subject, titled Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture (2003). I think Import/Export Funk Office is partly about such appropriations or, in a bad way, stealing procedures but, at the same time, about the blessings of influence – all against the backdrop of a much longer process.
RG Import/Export Funk Office wasn’t about shutting down how it might be possible to continue thinking and being in relation, or codifying things academically. It was about curiosity.
DD I think the title says it well: ‘import/export’ suggests a flow. It is a relationship structured by capitalism, which is not a utopia; it’s a relationship full of crime, violence and exploitation. But the alternative is not to silence its symptoms, look the other way or hide in identities. It’s to observe, discuss and intervene.
First published in Issue 190