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.
Stealing One’s Own Corpse
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.”
SPARCK, Space for Pan-African research, Creation and Knowledge, is run by a two-woman, activist-artist-writer-scholar team: Kadiatou Diallo and Dominique Malaquais.
Together, we are experimenting with novel ways of collaborating. Hierarchies are replaced with joint decision-making and collective responsibilities, physical centres and offices with mobile and virtual workspaces. Process and results are equally important and always experimental.
Kadiatou Diallo is a Cape Town based artist/ educator/ catalyst with an MA in educational psychology (Universities of Maastricht, NL and Stellenbosch, RSA) and a diploma in Fine Arts (Ruth Prowse School of Art, Cape Town). She has worked as a researcher, curriculum developer and evaluator in the NGO sector (adult education and community healthcare) with the Adult Learning Network. She has developed and facilitated a wide range of creativity workshops, using applied arts and culture as tools for processes in other areas and disciplines (for universities, conferences, NGOs and youth groups). Kadiatou served on the executive committee of the Association of Visual Arts and on the Board of Greatmore Art Studios. She is co-founder of the Cape Town based initiative, Kwa, a physical and conceptual space for imaginations. Between 2005-2011, Kadiatou was a consultant for the Africa Centre: In 2005-2006, she facilitated a youth leadership programme, bringing together high school learners from historically segregated schools in the Stellenbosch area; in 2007, she managed the Africa Centre’s first international gathering of multi-disciplinary art practitioners, entitled En/Tangled Nations; she was the project manager for the inaugural Africa Centre Spier Contemporary 2007, a biennial national visual arts exhibition and awards series. In 2011/12 she was appointed director of Greatmore Studios, an artist studio and residency space in Cape Town. In 2012, she lead one of the groups of the inaugural Joule City Incubator programme and launched the experimental podcast series “Artists on Africa”
Dominique Malaquais (Ph.D. Columbia University, New York City) is a scholar and writer. Her work focuses on intersections between emergent urban cultures, global, late capitalist market forces and political and economic violence in African cities. She has taught extensively in the United States (Columbia and Princeton Universities, Vassar, Trinity and Sarah Lawrence Colleges) and is currently based in France, where she holds the position of Senior Researcher at CNRS – the National Science Research Centre, Paris.
Dominique is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles, as well as essays, poems and short stories in English, French and Spanish. She is Associate Editor of Chimurenga magazine (South Africa) and sits on the editorial board of the journal Politique africaine (France). In 2003-2004, she was invited to lead a team of nine artists, scholars and activists in an eighteen-month multinational, trans-disciplinary reflection process around themes and approaches to be addressed by the Africa Centre. 2010 brings her to the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, at Harvard University.
Lost transmission signals, post-ruin landscapes, street level urban interventions, a cheap plastic bucket as a cosmonaut’s helmet, and magic as “just another name for the future” — these are the images and thoughts that hang on me after taking in Postcolonial Dilemma: Parts I-III. In addition to sparking my reflection about the conditions from which artistic and social projects emerge, this proposition prompts many questions about the past, present, and future of postcolonial urban space. As the sum of its parts, this proposition was strikingly polyphonic. Reading Postcolonial Dilemma: Parts I-III online entails scrolling down the screen to experience each element —textual, visual, sonic — separately and as a constituent. This organizational format might be construed at first glance as a curatorial strategy whereby a video triptych is framed and interpreted by text. However this is not my sense of the project. As I read the essays and clicked on the three videos, I found myself engaged with the project on its own terms and as an experimental platform for knowledge production.
I appreciated the project’s use of montage, reference, and evocation. Montage was most evident in the videos though it also played out in the project’s format. The opening essay was filled with insights about the project’s history and significance. Speculation and possibility, we are told, are at the project’s core: the appearance of a cosmonaut on the streets of Kinshasa, like other social and discursive forces, involves setting up a stage for things to happen. What the essay suggests about speculative practices, gain, and loss ramifies far beyond the scope of this particular proposition to the workings of contemporary life so riddled with uncertainties and aspirations. As much as the essay deepened my understanding of Kongo Astronauts (they are a Kinshasa based crew, an artists’ collective, and a think tank), I am also struck by the fact that the essay contributes to further solidifying the enigma of Kongo Astronauts. From here, my thoughts go to other writing projects about well-known artist’s collectives that seek not to disclose their details but rather to elaborate and perpetuate their modus operandi. An example that comes to mind is the Laboratoire Agit Art in Dakar, another enigmatic artists’ collective operating primarily in postcolonial urban space.
Kongo Astronaut’s video triptych quite brilliantly evoked historical consciousness while articulating tropes about discovery, persistence, and projected futures. The figure of the cosmonaut was central to interrogating the specter of Afro-pessimism explicit in narratives about Kinshasa. Fusing Afro-futurist themes with B movie aesthetic strategies was further critical to the video’s formal articulation. The choice of images and editing did much to generate speculation rather than direct viewers down an easily mapped path. The self-described psychotronic orientation resonates in the videos’ formal grittiness, pace, and incorporation of text and sonic clips. The videos are heavily informed by contrast and juxtaposition as affective strategies. Examples include references to land and its outer space, black and white, apocalyptic lighting and blinking lights, steady frames and blurred impressions. These contrasts, along with the video’s sound bed, spoke volumes about technology and its discontents, leaving us to wonder what we are not seeing or hearing, what is lost in the darkness, and which transmission signals await our reception. Juxtaposition and contrast were most legible in the first video (2010) with motifs of the male and female figures in various forms of communication and transition. The image of the zombie and the train on its tracks blurred spaces of the living and the dead, conveying the extent to which urban, postcolonial space is a post-ruin space and a space of the unknown. This imagery further suggested to me the struggle to find our way through other temporal and spatial registers.
The second video (2012) made use of a haunting montage of images — weapons, water, and raw resources in the aftermath of their extraction and in the midst of transportation. The video’s title, Stay Tuned, finds expression in scenes without conclusion or resolution as well as the sonic tracks taken from skype and phone recordings, echoes of language, and sounds of water. We cannot help but listen to the unrequited efforts at communication, at making contact and staying in touch, all of which provoke speculation about the consequences of these attempts and failures. Video #3 (2014) seems to build on Video #2, asking us to stay tuned. Its mood is one of arrivals and discovery, of being lost and seeking redirection. The opening sequence of images evokes the viewpoint of the cosmonaut who must be tracking his way through dense wilderness to encounter the Zongo falls.
The figure of the zombie and cosmonaut are significant; they are visible bodies just as they are mysterious and liminal bodies. I think there may be something more to say about these bodies in transition as signifiers of postcolonial dilemma, and especially the hopes and disappointments that drive efforts to “set the stage to make things happen.” I wonder about the connection of these bodies to another famous urban figure moving through the streets of Kinshasa — the sapeur. Like the sapeur, the zombie and the cosmonaut are simultaneously agents and subjects of speculation. Might it be possible that the silver suit clad figure of the cosmonaut appearing in city neighborhoods participates in an urban economy where visuality and speculation go hand in hand?
The final element in Postcolonial Dilemma, Stacey Hardy’s essay “Stealing One’s Own Corpse,” is not a response or interpretation to the preceding videos. Rather, it is a clever recounting of a conversation among Kodwo Eshun, Ntone Edjabe, and the author. Tracing several fascinating lines of conversation, from capitalism to magic and technology to drone strikes, Hardy’s prose puts in high relief the flow and energy of knowledge production when interlocutors listen and engage one another’s ideas. The threads that form from the processes of higher order intentionality among the various agents in the conversation conjured a range of associations and byproducts. A great example is the conversational thread building on Hardy’s discussion of Kodwo’s discussion of Singleton’s use of Fedrov’s reference to “escapology” and links between “scheme” and scheming, plot and plotting, craft and craftiness. It would seem that the methodology of the trickster, as described in the text, is critical to the daily practice of speculation.
Overall, Postcolonial Dilemma offers a proposition that responds powerfully to the journal’s objective of critically exploring arts based practice as a mode of knowledge production. It traverses many assumed boundaries, including those of disciplinary engagement, media, and authorship while opening up spaces for things to happen. In this sense, the possibilities opened up by the cosmonaut’s interventions are not dissimilar from the generative possibilities of Postcolonial Dilemma as a proposition. Both set the stage for new dialogues and opportunities, asking us to stretch and reach, to listen and see, and indeed, to speculate.
SPARCK:Postcolonial Dilemma: Parts 1-3
Headfirst into entropy
The now-called Democratic Republic of Congo is dubbed the country of superlatives, extending from its physical size and natural resources to despoilment and dispossession, through the proliferation of ‘churches.’ So, when it comes to artistic depiction of this giant fate, dragging out years and years of violence with a huge toll of casualties, in our global era mainly driven by the weird spirit of profit, the issue is for sure all but simple. How do you wrap/encapsulate such a complex and multidimensional reality with(in) metaphors? This question may sound casuistic, but it is certainly not regarding the matter of scale representation.
Thanks to late president Mobutu’s delirium and eccentricity, its megalomaniac attempt to establish a rocket launching facility/site in the copper region, although unsuccessful in the mid-70s, has provided Kongo Astronauts with an evocative and playful concept. Meaning that, what did not happen then, yet, left somehow a trace behind and has duly stamped the times. Taking advantage of a disastrous setback to build an artistic identity is a peak of “soft performance,” I could underline here. Rien ne se perd et tout se transforme, says the second principle of thermodynamics. More than often, artists do act like these middle-aged alchemists seeking to transmute lead into gold.
Why is this young woman with eye-catching lips exposing herself to a heavy shower? And who is this other one, sitting between two men, with a cutlass splitting his head? From PCD I to III, claiming to be psychotronic, that is far from staging any beauty, competence, or whatever aesthetic property, Eleonore Hellio’s films, given their non-sense at first sight, sound like a very trip into entropy. While from one to another, the stroboscopic editing mode speaks about non-linearity and clearly challenges retinal persistence. Without Sparck’s words, like abandoned to themselves, what happens throughout the pictures in rumbles and flashes, says much about the state of the world as a whole, not only the Congo of warlords and koltan purchasers. Welcome to the Vil Âge Global, a time and place of ferocity, as well as greediness, where human lives don’t matter for financial cliques obsessed by the Dow Jones & Co.
There is an evil monster out there, playing his awful game with our precious lives, says E.H. And what do we do about this? Are we expecting an army of angels with burning swords to go against him? Don’t you hear it? Don’t you feel it? No? Let’s go for some noise, then, to upset the sleep-inducing routine. While the idea of art is under siege since the smart Marcel Duchamp, maybe what an artist could/should do is less difficult to sketch in these dire times: harassing capitalism. By unveiling its ugliness, its deadly Mocheté, put in Sony Labou Tansi French speaking. Ideology has actually failed to get people fighting the spirit of profit, as much as we can see. The ideological crisis should not mean the end of the fight against injustice, inequalities of all kind, and other sources of misery.
Inapprivoisable, la radicale étrangeté des vidéos de E.H met en question le statut même de l’image dans une époque où elles submergent les appareils mentaux poreux et formatent les représentations de la réalité. Lesquelles se répandent par le truchement de l’interlocution mondiale et les échanges chiffrés en millions de contenus via le web. L’internaute que la sérendipité exposerait à ces “objets psychotroniques,” à la faveur d’une pérégrination sur la Toile, sera d’emblée déconcerté par cette concaténation stroboscopique, et la frilosité subjuguée par les produits standardisés de la Fabrique, rebutée. Seul les esprits curieux de la “différance,” entendue dans sa radicalité épistémologique, s’y confronteront à une entreprise proprement derridienne dans le champ des arts visuels. Déconstruire, pour ouvrir d’autres espaces de possibilités, en allant hardiment explorer des registres d’expression improbables. Comme le fit ce fameux Jacques-là, pour ausculter le réel plus en profondeur, par la pensée. Ou à la façon d’un S.L.T écrivant comme il respirait. Au prix d’une sorte d’épuisement du sens courant des mots de la langue française mise au service d’une lucidité incandescente. Celle dont René Char a dit qu’elle frise la brûlure du soleil. Et leur faisant dire l’indicible.
Athi Mongezeleli Joja
SPARCK:Postcolonial Dilemma: Parts 1-3
Sparck’s three-part video series titled Postcolonial Dilemma: Parts 1-3, a collaborative project with a “Kinshasa based crew” called Kongo Astronauts, invites us into what it calls “speculative practices.” Basically, an endless guess-game of what-ifs and maybes. According to the write up by Sparck, it is said that a benevolent cosmonaut who loitered the streets of Kinshasa, inspired the video works. He possessed the streets, invited interests and curiosity as he strolled “through a forest, pushing a boulder, Sisyphus-like, up a steep embankment, and performing a ritual before the falls… Everywhere, he appeared in a silver suit bristling with extensions of various kinds.” A sort of Mzekezeke of the Congo. The videos, following the speculative, if not the fictive characteristic of its protagonist, also linger in abstraction and anonymity. And like the curious audience of the streets of Kinshasa, trapped in bewilderment, we find ourselves caught in the same conjectural act.
The videos are between 3 and 8 minutes long. The first video interestingly opens up with a scene of a mummified white woman with a panga neatly lodged in her skull, jutting out the sides of her head as if they were horns. She’s flanked by two half-dressed men inside a gloomy space that has an aura of a sorcerer’s cave. Kept in suspense by a similarly gloomy music, all of a sudden we’re tossed into another scene. In what appears to be an office space, a man appears, showing a magic trick to a boy whose face we can’t see. The same white woman is positioned to his left, assisting in the demonstration. An airplane wing interjects the game, and in no time credits come up. The second video begins with an impervious soundscape of mechanical type and a black and white visual manipulation. All of a sudden, first a voice, and then a stationary woman standing under dripping water appears. These audiovisual stunts persist, shift and relent into other ones until the final stroll of the cosmonaut in the forest in the 3rd video.
It seems that the videos, like the protagonist, are “not committed to any particular course of action” or audible project, but are certainly “investing in the future of an as-yet-unknown prospect” as claimed in the project description. We pass through scenes that have a semblance of life, until we realize that we are actually led on an endless journey to nowhere. The real artwork could just be this “guesswork” in so far as the content is concerned. This is perhaps beyond the standard “art for art’s sake” issue once vehemently derided by Jean Baudrillard of artists painting about the fact that they paint. No! It seems that the speculative practice engaged here, is merely a guess game of non-committal formal commitment. I say formal because there seems to be an aesthetic trace both visually and phonetically. But what is speculation, and what are these “spaces of possibility” that are said to be unleashed here? Today it seems to be radical or even political, one mustn’t just declare themselves as such but make the next move; to being extremely subliminal and obscure.
Thus this fictional experiment isn’t problematic because it fetishizes the “performative” acts of the cosmonaut’s self-negation as political, or the inability to fit within narrow structures of the art system. Postcolonial Dilemma, a name suggestive of the prerogative to “choice,” seems not necessarily at odds with available choices but the act of choosing as such. Like the cosmonaut who relishes at the sheer accumulability of hypotheses about his identity and objectives, the videos play a game of obscurantism to keep us guessing as a way of scoring narcissistic points of relevance. In a way, it is not far away from current trends in artistic and theoretical circles, to always remain suggestive, becoming, elusive and so forth… until kingdom come.
Isn’t this precisely the same game played by Stacy Hardy’s piece, that is, the pretentious Tom and Jerry game with power? Hardy’s wager, in not so many words, sings a song of capitulation and acquiescence under the guise of fugitivity. Capitalism is not a trap that we can bypass, as a mouse might get away from a trap. There’s no hole to perfectly insulate us from capitalist modes of production. In a kind of Fred Motenian strategy of fugitivity in the black radical tradition, Hardy theorises the “escape” from escapism but shows little interest in ending the game itself. Here the black radical tradition is used as an embellishment of capitalism and white supremacy; it is reduced and distorted to little acts of hide and seek. Perhaps we must remind Hardy that “escapism,” as that which “traps us in our current capitalist existence” is as much a readjustment, a trickster’s escapade, as her abstract notion of stealing oneself from the vault. Or that fugitivity is as much an escape from black abjection, as Michael Jackson’s decision to turn white. “Simple enough, one has only not to be a nigger…everything takes on a new guise” (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks). Black structural oppression as Frank B. Wilderson tells us, is “not a black experience but a condition of black ‘life’ ” in the world. That is to say, the very constitution of the capitalist reality does not separate the black body from the vault from which the body can momentarily escape through cultural and theological escapades. The black body is the very vault itself – the “zone of non-beings” – as the idea of death-in-life is a metaphoric conception of blackness in an anti-black world. The point isn’t to play tricks with current situations, but to end it.
SPARCK:Postcolonial Dilemma: Parts I-III & Stacy Hardy:Stealing one’s own corpse;