In September 2013, reports started coming out of Kinshasa of a cosmonaut walking the streets at odd times and places. The first sightings were in Lingwala, a neighborhood near the city center. Then came the wildly eroded streets of Kindele quarter; Kimbanseke, home, once, to the prophet Simon Kibangu; Ngwaka, the city’s toughest area; Matonge, where Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974; and, finally Massina, also known as the People’s Republic of China. Initially, people just watched the cosmonaut go by. Then they started filming. Photos and pocket films were made with cell phones. Pictures went up on Facebook. Shortly after, the diaspora was commenting. Eventually, a big-name photographer got involved and posted images online. By 2014, a scholar in Europe had got wind of things and, following a brief research trip, gave her first lecture on the phenomenon.
As it happened, we knew more about the cosmonaut than most. This was a result of our close working relationship with a Kinshasa based crew—part artists’ collective, part think-tank and experimental living facility—called Kongo Astronauts. K.A. were in daily contact with the cosmonaut and, while they explained that a formal meeting was not as yet possible, they were in a position to provide us with the best images known to date: a series of photographs shot at a site some five hours South of Kinshasa, Zongo Falls. Shortly thereafter, they followed this up with a video, also shot at the falls.
The still and moving images showed the cosmonaut ambling through a forest, pushing a boulder, Sisyphus-like, up a steep embankment, and performing a ritual before the falls. In some shots, his head was covered; in others, his face was visible. Everywhere, he appeared in a silver suit bristling with extensions of various kinds.
The images had come to us in March of 2014. Following this, we heard little. The cosmonaut appeared to have ceased his Kinshasa rounds. Then, a week ago, came reports of renewed sightings, this time in the neighborhood of Limete.
Speculation, it seems clear, is at the core of the cosmonaut’s appearances. This is so in two regards. First is the fact that he seeks to prompt speculation among his viewers: hypotheses, conjecture, guesswork. He gives few clues as to who he is or why he chooses to amble through the city. On occasion, he has been known to help a person in need—crossing a street, changing a tire—but, as a general proposition, he does nothing in particular. This raises a lot of questions concerning what, precisely, he is about.
Second, his presence opens up spaces of possibility—of moves that might eventually be made. Not committed to any particular course of action, the cosmonaut appears to be hedging his bets. These two aspects of his appearances reveal the double nature of speculation. Besides conjecture, the latter also indicates an investment made in the hope of gain, but with the risk of loss. To speculate, in the second sense of the word, is to hedge one’s bets. The link between the two meanings is particularly obvious in the present instance. The cosmonaut is investing in the future of an as-yet-unknown prospect. Put differently, he is making space—building a possible stage for himself—which he may or may not choose to act upon in the future.
In as radically unstable a post-war context as Kinshasa’s, this double use of speculation makes a great deal of sense. AbdouMaliq Simone, one of the foremost thinkers on contemporary urban experience in the global South, points to the critical importance for everyday navigation of the city, of making things happen. Where there are few formal jobs to be had, where shifting political, economic and social states of affairs make it exceedingly difficult to position oneself, where who and what one can count on is in constant flux, the ability to create spaces, or better yet to find breaches, into which one can temporarily insert oneself and which one can exit just as fast, means everything1. The cosmonaut undoubtedly sees this and has chosen to act upon it.
The result is one of the more arresting experiments in performance art that we have encountered of late. For this, indubitably, is art. The cosmonaut defines himself, and is trained, as an artist. His art, however, is not readily recognizable as such. In fact, as the foregoing suggests, it is not recognizable as much of anything at all—save, that is, itself. Nor is it signed: the man in the cosmonaut suit does not claim ownership of the persona that he inhabits as he walks the streets of Kinshasa. As such, his performances engage with a notion put forth by philosopher Stephen Wright. Art is at its most effective, politically, Wright holds, when it is not recognizable as art: when it flies under the radar screen that the art world uses to identify what is and is not of its ambit. Because it cannot be pinned down as art, it cannot be policed by an art world intimately linked to the structures of power that govern us2.
Much the same might be said of the works by Kongo Astronauts. None quite fit the definition(s) of art and all engage with the notion and the practice of speculation. The first, Postcolonial Dilemma Track #02, can best be described as a visual experiment in/on extractive processes. To a screeching tune, it probes the violence visited on vast swaths of Congo by the rabid exploitation of resources—raw power (transformed into electricity), coltan (the stuff that makes cell phone and satellite communications possible), heterogenite (a compound of copper and cobalt) and all manner of precious and semi-precious gems. Many of these resources are traded and re-traded on highly volatile markets by investors who speculate extensively on minute-to-minute shifts in value. The pairing of immense wealth for some and grinding poverty for most that such speculation entails makes for radical instability that finds an echo in the formal instability of the film. Sight and sound, cuts and repeats are wed in such a manner that little makes sense, save the sense that extraordinarily violent forces are being brought into play. And yet… listen closely, in several languages, through muffled satellite relays, and things become rather less clear-cut. There is talk of hauntings (envoûtements); technology is misappropriated and fails. Certainties as to who has access to, and rules what, begin to fray at the edges.
Hauntings come front and center in Postcolonial Dilemma Track #01 (Redux). Here, the focus shifts from the extraction of raw materials to that of souls, one understood as an extension of the other. Wrapped in the garb of Conradian fantasy, speculative capitalism hovers as bodies and bribes are traded. But, again, doubt enters the picture, here in the form of zombies whose allegiances are wholly unclear. Certainties fray further still.
In Young Money Billionaire (Photo Novella), a Kinshasa street slang primer, it is language that frays at the edges. Lingala, Kinshasa’s lingua franca, is shot through with words borrowed from French and reworked to suit local needs. Langila, a form of Lingala slang, plays still further havoc with the self-styled “mother tongue,” bending it to wholly new ends. Nothing means what, on the face of things, it seems to mean—not for Lingala speakers and even less so for users of French. Nor will the primer be of much help: by the time you’re done reading it, words will have shifted, morphed, taken on new significations and forms. Langila is a wholly speculative language: it is made, remade and unmade daily in much the same way that the cosmonaut moves through the city—in order to make things happen, to set the stage for the new, the unlikely and, hence, the possible.
Emphatically lo-tech, the pieces have a certain samizdat quality. Video shot on the fly with a camera meant primarily to take still pictures; images and sounds pilfered and re-played unedited; cut-and-paste photomontages recalling a genre popular in second and third tier magazines from the 1970s. The films make use of media and modes that stand in stark counterpoise to the slick production values characterizing so much of what the art world has to offer at the edge of the twenty-first century. Much the same might be said of the Zongo falls pictures, where, hijacked Photoshop meets cheap, over-the-counter calendar imagery, or, indeed, of the cosmonaut himself: his helmet, after all, is a plastic bucket.
All of this is a deliberate decision of course, and a deeply political one at that. The point is to expose the seams of process: to get under the skin of practice in a complicated place and render visible the mechanics of making things happen. In much the same way as the cosmonaut is at work creating possibilities, his Astronaut colleagues are imagining what can be done with the building blocks at hand. This is not to say that either one—Kongo Astronauts or cosmonaut—wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to imagine more with more means. The point, rather, is that, given few means and a bent to do exactly as they please, they are intent on telling an unadorned story, both of themselves and of the place from which they work.
Speculative practices, here and for SPARCK, are a central focus: choices creators make to eschew fixed outcomes in favor of steering a contingent, and if need be a changing path in contexts of constant flux.
All images: Cosmonaut at Zongo Falls (2014). Images courtesy of Kongo Astronauts.
By Stacy Hardy
I’m hanging with Kodwo Eshun and Ntone Edjabe at the Chimurenga headquarters. It’s a Friday night in Cape Town. Street sounds filter up, blasts of kwaito from the taxis, fragments of voices. Kodwo’s flown in from London. Ntone has just landed, still jetlagged from the flight from Germany, Sharjah, Vietnam. Sometimes it feels like we spend our lives in the air but tonight we’re home. Tonight we’re just hanging, letting the conversation fly. Kodwo is in full stream, offering an accelerated genealogy of accelerationism, tracking its insistence that the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt, critique, or détourne it, but to accelerate and exacerbate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies. It’s a line of flight that runs through 90s UK darkside cyberculture and the theory-fictions of Nick Land, Sadie Plant, Iain Grant, and anonymous units like CCRU and SWITCH, to the rogue media theory of Matthew Fuller, the inhuman feminism of Luciana Parisi’s Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Biotechnology and the Mutations of Desire, the “sound bombs” of Steve Gordon’s Sonic Warfare, and the unclassifiable theory-fiction of the Iranian writer Reza Negarestani.
Right now he’s on radical design theorist Benedict Singleton, whose essay “Maximum Jailbreak” offers us a window onto Nikolai Fedorov, a prophet of both the space age and transhumanism in its Russian incarnation. For Fedorov, as Kodwo explains, death was not an essential feature of the human condition as most philosophers of finitude would assume, but was rather something to be eliminated and overcome through medical science: “Death is a property, a condition … but not a quality without which man ceases to be what he is and what he ought to be.” Fedorov, Kodwo says, was a man on a mission, and as Singleton reminds us, the engine of his thought was a “refusal to take the most basic factors conditioning life on earth – gravity and death – as necessary.”
Kodwo goes on, reanimating Singleton’s argument in his typically open, vivid style, describing how Fedorov conceived “a jailbreak at the maximum possible scale, a heist in which we steal ourselves from the vault.” As Kodwo tells us, Federov realized the technology of his era was not yet ready for the intricate and massive undertaking of stealing back our own corpse, so he attuned his tactics and strategies to counter our entrapment in both mortality and gravity, with his own, setting “traps” that would allow for greater freedom from the effects of gravity through a new sense of artistic possibilities. He introduced within his traps an “alien cunning,” an intelligence whose general mode of operation, as Singleton documents, “links craft with craftiness…,” to create artifacts as abstract machines to infiltrate and captivate, allure and absolve, “courtly intrigues, daring military stratagems, and explosive outbreaks of entrepreneurial success: all instances of the successful navigation of ambiguous and shifting environments, impossible to corral directly, in which we find demonstrated the ability to elicit extraordinary effects from unpromising materials through oblique stratagems and precisely timed action, allowing the weak to prevail over the physically strong.”
According to Kodwo, Singleton uses Fedorov’s radical ideas of “escapeology” as a methodology that might allow us to escape the deadening “escapism” that traps us in our current capitalist existence. Linking “scheme” and scheming; “plot” and plotting; “craft” and craftiness, Kodwo describes how we’ll need to employ a trickster’s methodology if we hope to achieve our own radical jailbreak. As Singleton puts it: “If a trap is to be escaped by anything other than luck, to which a determinant like gravity is decidedly unresponsive, the escapee itself must change: the thing that escapes the trap is not the thing that was caught in it…”
The conversation moves onto radical trickster escapes and escapades, the ruptural and enraptured acts of cunning that the black radical tradition has so long enacted; those fugitive, even criminal acts that burst onto the stroll of the stolen life, the life stolen by enlightenment and stolen back – from Henry “Box” Brown, who famously escaped slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1815 by posting himself in a wooden box from Virginia to Philadelphia, where slavery had been abolished; to Amos Tutuola’s narrator in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, who performs a double escapology: first evading the slave raiders who attack his village by disappearing into the phantasmagoria of “the bush” and then using an “invisible magic missive” to lead him out of the very same bush. In both these instances we see how craft is used to cunningly bend the material world into new shapes, guided by a wily intelligence.
Ntone joins the conversation, overcoming his jetlag to add “Avions de Nuit” or “Night Planes” into the mix. As Ntone explains, these unruly manifestations of collective contemporary Cameroonian consciousness make nightly flights across the Atlantic carrying passages into slavery. Fuelled by the blood of their victims, Night Planes are tiny – they could be an empty tin of sardines or even an empty box of matches – yet despite their size any one of these planes can carry as many as twenty vampires and can fly out to great distances, like neighbouring Gabon or Chad, with a common goal – to suck dry sleeping human beings.
It’s not hard to make the leap from Ntone’s mythological Night Planes to the drones that increasingly patrol Africa’s night skies. Kodwo has just started reading French philosopher, Grégoire Chamayou’s new book A Theory of the Drone and he picks up the thread. As Kodwo tells it, the book opens with a kind of stage play that reproduces the conversation of UAV operators conducting a strike in Afghanistan. Chamayou, Kodwo tells us, elaborates it to unusual length, letting the pilot, sensor operator, safety observer, etc., speak for seven full pages. Their dialogue dead-ends at the realization that a helicopter assault on their target has struck women and children. “I personally wouldn’t be comfortable shooting at these people,” says the sensor operator, strikingly without irony.
I nod. It’s like the dialogue was published in Der Spiegel in 2012; then, a sensor operator asked his pilot, “Did we just kill a kid?” The answer came down from on high: “No. That was a dog.”
We sit in silence for a while, contemplating the unspeakable horror of the exchange. As the silence drags into discomfort, I can’t help thinking about the terrible cunning and genius of the drone. How close it is to Fedorov’s “daring military stratagems” and Singleton’s ideas of craft and craftiness.
Harun Farocki tells us that the technology of military vision produces not so much representations as “’operative images,’ images that do not represent an object, but instead are part of an operation.” Here, according to Farocki, vision is a sighting: it serves not to represent objects but to act upon them, to target them. The function of the eye is that of a weapon.
The link between the two is the image on the screen, which is not so much a figurative representation as an operative function. You can click the apparatus, and when you click, you kill. Here, though, the act of killing is in effect reduced to positioning the pointer or arrow on little “actionable images,” tiny figures that have taken the place of the old flesh-and-blood body of the enemy.
The gesture, Chamayou points out, evokes the ancient procedure of “nailing,” “the practice of sticking pins or needles into a waxen image of the person against whom . . . witchcraft was directed.” Originally this probably involved “sticking them actually into the body of the individual . . . but as this process was no doubt sometimes attended with inconvenience and danger to the operator, the easier and safer method was devised of substituting a waxen proxy, instead of the true man. This practice was known under the name of defixio.” What used to be a magical practice has been converted into a high-tech procedure.
Kodwo nods. The link between magic and technology is one he knows only too well. In his book More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, he assembles musical forms that combine ethnic cultural traditions with what he terms a mystic science. Here, Kodwo establishes the Afrodiasporic genres of hip hop, jazz, and scratch as “sciencemyth,” a term that breaks with the binary of science and myth. Kodwo then goes on to claim that these musical strategies organize a “myth-technology” that sets up “an interface between science and myth … a continuum from technology to magic and back again.” And magic, he argues, is just “another name for the future.” As he reminds us now, the idea isn’t new. Arthur C. Clarke long ago postulated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” which is to say that magic is merely any sufficiently advanced technology.
But if we are in fact bewitched by the “magic” of the drone, as we are by the Night Planes that haunt Cameroon’s collective unconscious, how can we create our own “traps” that allow us to escape their entrapment? The question is increasingly pressing in Africa today, where drones have become the weapon of choice in a trans-continental secret war currently being waged by America’s Africom. As a recent report in the Washington Post highlights, drones currently take off or land around the clock, about sixteen times a day, at Camp Lemonnier, a U.S. military base in Djibouti that serves as the combat hub for the Obama administration’s counterterrorism wars in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. According to the article, Camp Lemonnier is the centerpiece of an expanding constellation of half a dozen U.S. drone and surveillance bases in Africa, created to combat a new generation of terrorist groups across the continent, from Mali to Libya to the Central African Republic. In addition to Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. operates bases in Burkina Faso, as well as nearby Mauritania. In Central Africa, the main hub is in Uganda, though there are plans to open a base in South Sudan. In East Africa, U.S. aircraft fly out of bases in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Seychelles.
For Kodwo, as for Singleton, the answer is surprisingly simple. “Nothing counters cunning but more cunning,” observes Kodwo, half rueful, half delighted. The drone may appear to be the perfect killing machine, but there are always cracks and gaps in such apparently flawless architectures; intelligence moves forward by keeping on its crafty toes, “ever opening into a world that is messy, unpredictable and far from equilibrium, a fecund space of possibility and innovation…”
Our conversation quickly moves onto fiction. If, after all, there is an answer, a space that will allow us to find the cracks and gaps in the drone’s armour, maybe it is here. As More Brilliant Than the Sun reminds us, if the lineage of science is exclusive white, then even the genealogy must be reconfigured to accommodate racialized difference. To this end, “Mythscience,” or “Sonic Fiction,” Kodwo argues, creates a “discontinuation,” or a break with history. Instead of playing within the familiar tropes of Eurocolonial histories, Sonic Fiction sets up an “AfroDiasporic Futurism” with “the force of the fictional and the power of falsity” to break with these oppressive histories and practices.
The obvious reference is Teju Cole’s “Seven short stories about drones,” a series of tweets splicing world literature with drone language. My favourite of Cole’s tweets is his riff on Camus’s The Stranger, “Mother died today. The program saves American lives.” There’s no arguing with the brutal caesura in that couplet, and no real refuge in euphemism or escapism. Then there’s Michael Robbins’s piece “To the Drone Vaguely Realizing Eastward,” which Yahoo famously commissioned and then refused to publish, not allegedly because of its politics, but rather the obscenity of its last line, which compared the drone’s bomb bay to an expulsion of wind from the vulva during coitus; a vaginal fart: “The bomb bay opens with a queef.”
More recently, Mexican-born poet David Shooks has proposed “Drone Poetry,” a project that takes its inspiration from Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, who wrote his poems in the sky over Queens and in the deserts of Atacama, from the Chilean Casagrande Collective, which, for the past decade has dropped poems by helicopter over cities that have suffered airstrikes, and from contemporary Afghan “landays” composed by the grieving mothers of drone victims (“The drones have come to the Afghan sky/ The mouths of our rockets will sound in reply/ My Nabi was shot down by a drone./ May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own”), to deploy specially commissioned poems by leading US and world poets, which aim to “bring the U.S. military’s covert drone operations into the spotlight to promote discussion, to humanize their victims, and to explore the political responsibility of poets, artists, and citizens.”
As Shook explains, “In imagining how I might do my part as a poet to encourage that conversation, I began considering alternative methods of getting thought-provoking poems into people’s hands. I wanted something unexpected and symbolic, something exciting and efficient. Something like a drone.”
Perhaps however, it’s Congolese novelist Sony Labou Tansi, whose prophetic 1979 novel Life and a Half best captures the AfroDiasporic Futurism that Kodwo calls for. Here Sony’s superscience weapons foreshadow drones as “mutant flies” whose sting turns their victims into radiant carbon, radio-flies with beam weapons and radio-bombs that buzz with a brutal foretaste of sonic warfare. In Sony’s book, as in Nikolai Fedorov’s imagination, the only escape lies not in evading dying, but rather in returning to steal back one’s own corpse from the grave. As Achille Mbembe describes it, “Life and a Half is a place and a time of half-death – or, if one prefers, half-life. It is a place where life and death are so entangled that it is no longer possible to distinguish them, or to say what is on the side of the shadow or its obverse.”